RENT STRIKE IN ACTION: Tenant union takes on corporate landlord!
Updated: Aug 8, 2020
In recent months, new tenants unions and building committees have emerged from below as the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the unprecedented housing crisis have pushed new layers of renters into struggle for the first time.
In April of 2020, a group of renters under The Samia Companies in Boston founded their tenants union, Aim As 1, seeking to support tenants who had lost income due to the pandemic. They saw the need for renters to self-organize to ward off mass evictions and rental debt, and have since been working to grow their organization, escalate for their demands, and be a resource to struggling tenants under the landlord.
Mylo and Robin, founding members of Aim as 1, share lessons from their work.
How was Aim As 1 founded?
A “Who’s your landlord?” poll in the Boston Rent Strike 2020 Facebook group asked members what company or landlord they rent from. Robin immediately started reaching out via Facebook messenger to everyone who marked Samia in the poll.
The ask was simple: let's meet virtually to see if we can organize and stand with each other through the COVID crisis. That initial reachout led to creating a private Facebook group for easier communication. That group now has over 40 members. Not everyone has Facebook, so the work continues of having one-on-one conversations with roommates, flyering our buildings, and sending mailers to start connecting and finding the needs of all tenants.
Some of our members have not lost income, but are fighting with us because they believe in the right of all Samia tenants to have their voices heard when it comes to repairs and upkeep--and want to be supportive of tenants who are economically unstable due to the ongoing pandemic.
For our first collective action, we wrote letters to Samia property manager Dave Chester. We all demanded that rent be reduced by 25-50%. This collective request from the union was initially ignored, and ultimately refused.
What’s it like living under Samia?
Current renters under Samia live under varying conditions that are mostly at odds with healthy living standards under Massachusetts law. When units are filled with mold, water damage, collapsed ceilings, and even rotting animal carcasses in the walls attracting fly infestations -- Samia is nowhere to be found. The overwhelming majority of tenants move into apartments that have not been pre-cleaned, have mold and mildew in bathrooms, and are missing normal hardware. Tenants pay high prices to live in substandard conditions with price ranges that are unequal across units and don’t take building conditions into account. We are asked to renew leases before the current leases are even halfway way up as a tactic to trap tenants in long-term abusive contracts .
Tenants have gone hours without water with no notice of non-emergency work being done. We stay because moving is costly - those that can afford to move do! This turnaround in tenancy has made it hard to hold Samia accountable and has been one of the biggest obstacles in growing our union.
At the end of June, Aim as 1 organized a socially distanced standout outside Samia offices. How did this action come about?
When the #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd movement exploded, it became a frequent topic of discussion in our weekly Zoom meetings. There has been tons of reporting on how Black renters will be hardest hit by the eviction crisis, and Boston in particular has an extremely racist record on evictions and discrimination in the housing market.
We were inspired by the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and we began to make connections between the systemic racism being protested in the streets and the unjust housing inequalities that permeate the Boston area and rest of the U.S. This paired with frustration from the lack of engagement from Samia (still no response from the property manager to our letters) led us to organize a socially-distant standout protest in front of Samia Companies’ offices in Lower Allston, which we called “Boston Tenants for BLM!” The demands of the union were for Samia to respond to our letters, allow rent reductions with no accrual for tenants who need it, release tenants from abusive leases, and halt evictions for non-payment of rent. But we also knew we needed to include demands of the broader movement and the city of Boston, to build support and to show in action that our struggle is linked. We called for defunding the police to fund affordable housing, no COVID-19 evictions, and bringing back rent control which has been banned in the state since 1994.
We promoted the event in the Boston Rent Strike Facebook group every day leading up to the action. We coordinated with Rent Strike 2020 to send an email blast to thousands of petition signers in the area.
What was the action like?
Many of us met for the first time at this action; Samia owns buildings across the city and state. Even though it was pouring rain on the day of the action, turnout was better than we expected.
CityLife/Vida Urbana, a local housing nonprofit, organized an anti-eviction car caravan for the same day, and we coordinated with them to meet up at the Samia office which grew our protest. Members of Aim as 1, BLM organizers, eviction defense activists and socialists spoke to the crowd about the unjust practices of Samia, why housing justice is racial justice, and how we can fight back against capitalist exploitation by building strength in numbers to take on our landlords and bosses.
After the speakers, the crowd was so energized we decided on the spot to picket in front of the office, with our signs in view of a major Boston roadway. We had lively chants going for a half an hour, and a lot of passing cars honked in support.
What is the plan going forward?
Since the standout, Aim As 1 has continued to support Samia tenants in standing up for their rights, including the right to a safe and healthy living environment and the right to organize without retaliation.
The tenants’ union plans to continue meeting, especially as unemployment benefits cease and eviction moratoriums are lifted, to keep Samia tenants safely housed. So far, Aim As 1 has won a rent reduction for one unit for their new lease, and has succeeded in blocking a yearly rent increase. We anticipate more victories on the horizon as we become more widely organized and aware of our rights as tenants.
We are planning another outreach action in the coming weeks. Since Boston is such a college-heavy city, the vast majority of leases begin on September 1st. We plan to have a visible presence in the buildings as new people are moving in, flyering them with information about the union and having conversations about getting involved. We hope to coordinate this in tandem with other tenants unions in the area, so we all come out stronger and be part of a united movement.
We hope to inspire renters beyond Samia to form their own tenant organizations, and to join the growing Rent Strike movement to build tenant power in every city, under every landlord!