On February 13th, 2023, every resident of my apartment complex received a postcard from the City of Saint Paul explaining that our landlord had applied for an exception to the city’s rent stabilization ordinance (RSO), meaning that they could raise the rent up to 8% in one year. Only a few days later, we received another postcard from the city stating that the application had been approved. This development came as a surprise to many residents of the building, who had heard of and in many cases voted for the RSO and its 3% cap on rent increases. However, it was not only completely legal under the gutting amendments and implementation rules made by the city after the RSO’s passing, but shockingly easy for our landlord to obtain, with only a simple online form standing between them and the opportunity to price gouge and displace. The day that we all received this postcard, a resident in the building messaged our building chat saying, “So, what are we going to do about the rent increase?”
This message was an exciting moment of leadership on the part of this neighbor that spurred our entire building to action and eventually saw us organizing, writing, researching, and testifying in front of city hall, but the group chat that it was sent on, by contrast, arose out of a long, awkward, and uninspiring first attempt at tenant organizing. In August 2022, half a year before all of this happened, my “Renter Mentors,” two seasoned tenant organizers from San Diego and Boston who had volunteered with DSA’s Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee to advise DSA members in other chapters about the art and science of building autonomous tenant unions, had convinced me and two other TCDSA comrades in Saint Paul to participate in the “10 Day Neighbor Challenge.” The challenge (knock on every door in your building and introduce yourself, learn a little bit about your neighbors, and get their phone numbers to add to a group chat), was simultaneously terrifying for your average shy person and seemingly too simple and innocuous to work. Nevertheless, my Renter Mentors insisted that it was an integral step towards forming a tenants union, so I pushed through. My neighbors were kind, receptive, and appreciative of the cookies that my roommate and I had baked for the occasion, but not eager to join our group chat. The chat remained empty for about six months, with the occasional intrusion of a spam bot selling crypto, and I quietly designated the 10 Day Neighbor Challenge as one of my least successful organizing ventures.
In reality, it only took one well-publicized incident of landlord malfeasance and a few neighbors who had not yet deleted the invite I had sent them on WhatsApp to turn a flop group chat frequented by no one into the site of vigorous tenant organizing. The group seemed to awaken gradually from a dormant state, as people we had talked to in August found the chat invite link deep in their text histories and added one or two people that they knew from their corner of the building. Our first order of business was to explore avenues for fighting the rent increase. Our own legal research and allies at HOME Line told us that the RSO implementation rules had left the deck largely stacked in favor of landlords in cases of self-certification and reasonable return on investment requests, and we were unlikely to get the city’s hasty ruling overturned unless we could find a glaring mistake made by our landlord in their paperwork. Because the only way to even see the paperwork was to file a formal appeal to the city’s department of safety and inspections, we as a group voted to do so, knowing that it would likely not result in a change to our rent situation but at least afford us the opportunity to exert our legal rights as renters to demand transparency from our landlord around his egregious increase.
The process that ensued was long, frustrating, and ultimately inconsequential in determining how much our rent increased because the process that the city had set out before us was not designed to be won by tenants. Our efforts confirmed and strengthened the suspicions we had from the start that almost insurmountable amounts of structural bias towards landlords were inherent to the self-certification and appeal processes. Despite having done all of our homework, following every procedure, and overcoming every barrier to exercising our right to appeal the increase, we still lost; but we’re not leaving empty handed by a long shot. As the dust continues to settle from our protracted series of hearings at city hall, it is clear that our group, which currently exists somewhere on the spectrum between group of active neighbors and tenants union, is still intact. We still talk on our group chat about the problems we encounter in our building, door knock together, and, despite our losses, make our landlord noticeably apprehensive. Furthermore, through our building’s careful process of planning, strategizing, and making connections with other groups across the city, we were able to pose the scenario not as a defeat, but as an illustration for city staff, city council, and the Saint Paul voter base of the moral compromises and inherent contradictions that plague the reactionary amendments to and reactionary attacks on the RSO.
We hope to continue to build power and solidarity within our building, and with other buildings in the city who are also facing their own exploitative landlord who has found themselves empowered by the city’s unwillingness to meaningfully enforce the will of the voters with the RSO. Through this process, we’ve learned that electoral victories like the passage of Saint Paul’s RSO ballot initiative in 2021 are important, but not immune to the machinations of power and its representatives, who will take every opportunity to roll back or simply not enforce hard-won progress. In these cases it is incumbent upon every day people, especially renters, to be organized, educated, and empowered to build and exert power outside of the state.
I urge you, if you are a renter and you are reading this, to make some time in the coming weeks to introduce yourself to your neighbors, share a moment of genuine connection, and offer to be in contact if there’s ever anything going on that affects the whole building. It might seem superfluous or ineffective now, if you do it when there’s nothing going on in your building or neighborhood that would immediately galvanize action. But I assure you that the condition of renters under capitalism is not to spend prolonged periods of time without facing a challenge. And when that challenge does come, in the form of an untenable rent increase or a persistent maintenance issue, you will be much better equipped to approach that challenge as several neighbors on a group chat than one atomized voter with your wishy-washy councilmember on speed dial.
To learn more about how to get involved with DSA’s Emergency Tenant Organizing committee, either through a 2-day training on tenant organizing or a long-term, personalized mentorship process, please fill out the online form at https://actionnetwork.org/forms/join-the-emergency-tenant-organizing-committee/.
By Cory C