Insights on Tenant Organizing from Stonybrook Village: A Conversation with Boston DSA Housing WG Comrades

Boston DSA housing working group comrades, along with City Life/Vida Urbana folks, have been actively canvassing residents of Stonybrook Village in Hyde Park since last August. After close to a year of hard work, the Stonybrook Tenants Union held a public rally against the abusive management on June 2, drawing over a hundred people. PEWG blog sat down to talk with comrades Evan L, Adam H and Ben S from the housing working group on effective strategies to organize tenants. 

PEWG blog: Can you speak briefly about how you decided to canvass at the Stonybrook village?

Evan L: The decision to canvass at Stonybrook for the first time was similar to a lot of other buildings we’ve canvassed – City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) told us that this was a building that might be experiencing a clearout; it had been sold a few months previously for ~12.5 million dollars to Lincoln Ave Capital, a company owned by the Bronfman family (heir to the Seagram liquor fortune). But we had canvassed at a lot of different buildings before through CLVU or using our own scraper data for similar reasons. Maybe what’s more relevant here is what made us decide to commit to organizing in the building. I think that was a combination of feeling a little bit more confident in our abilities after around a year of plugging into other CLVU work, and the initial canvases that we went on where we heard about the issues that people were experiencing at Stonybrook. 

PEWG blog: How were the first months of tenant canvassing at this location? How would you compare your experience here with that in other properties you have been to, such as Fairlawn in Mattapan?

Evan L: In the first few months we were really just trying to build relationships with folks and understand what they were dealing with. The broad issues were made obvious when talking to people: mold, pests, flooding, rent increases. These were all consistent issues, and one issue that began to stand out more and more over time was the relationship of the tenants to the onsite manager. All the tenants agree that she is rude and very difficult to deal with, and she is often retaliatory towards tenants that get on her bad side. She has had the cars of multiple tenants towed even when they had parking passes, has given out rent increases to tenants who she got in a fight with, and has made recertification of the lease a harrowing experience for everyone as she demands many obscure documents from tenants which were never required before. At the beginning of our canvassing, people were describing these issues to us, but they didn’t really trust us enough to organize with us. Compared to organizing at Fairlawn, I think the broad issues are very comparable. I think we generally agree though that early canvassing was tougher at Fairlawn than it was at Stonybrook. Tenants were in general more mistrustful, and getting into the buildings was just physically harder because you had to be buzzed in, whereas at Stonybrook all of the doors to the apartments are on the outside. 

Ben S: An additional challenge was that the management sent a letter to the tenants after our initial canvasses saying that we worked for management. This added to the general barriers that organizers experience as individuals not from the community. Organizing at Stonybrook has been easier for me than organizing at fairlawn because I’ve gotten to know the tenants while working here. 

PEWG blog: Do you think there was one particular aspect of your canvassing that convinced the tenants to organize into a union?

Adam H: I think when we showed up there was a lot of dissatisfaction and anger directed at management, but there was also very little trust for us as tenant organizers. Of course, this was to be expected, but it was also because management sent around misinformation and told the tenants that we were working with them! Two tenants in particular who later became leaders in the union, independently told us that they had not trusted us initially partly due to misinformation put out by management. Later, when management targeted them for eviction — in both cases as a retaliation for complaints about poor housing conditions — one tenant contacted CLVU for help with his eviction case. By a very lucky coincidence, we were at housing court for the hearing, and we bumped into the second tenant’s family as they prepared for their own defense against eviction. During these protracted legal fights, which they eventually won thanks to the legal support of Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and CLVU, both tenants were harassed by the management company with cynical, petty requests for various unnecessary forms and documents, which would only be replaced by new requests as soon as the tenants frantically produced them. Organizers from CLVU and DSA Housing working group showed up for these tenants again and again, which I think, built the core of trust that was the foundation for forming the union.

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Stony Brook Tenants Union Represent!

PEWG blog: What are the main difficulties you have faced in organizing at Stonybrook? And in general, while canvassing?

Adam H: Each building has its own advantages and disadvantages for organizing. At Stonybrook, all of the apartments have their own outward-facing door which means organizers can directly knock on a tenant’s apartment, while at other buildings, we have to first gain entry to the complex, which can be difficult in the early stages of organizing a building (as we build relationships with tenants, it’s less of an issue). Another challenge is management’s attempts to hinder our work, such as sending out misinformation to the tenants and telling organizers to leave if they encounter them. At other buildings, management has put up ‘No Trespassing’ flyers and installed security cameras. We usually interpret these actions as signs that the landlord is worried, and while they can be intimidating, they are therefore also encouraging.

The biggest challenge we face is to help the tenants feel a sense of ownership and leadership of the union. Many tenants work extremely long hours and face the disproportionate burden of hardship caused by the structural inequities built into capitalism. So it is naturally difficult for them to take up the fight against their landlord. But we have seen in our organizing at Stonybrook that as tenants engage in this struggle and experience how much power they have as an organized collective, they increasingly link their struggle to other working class fights — for example one tenant realized the parallels to the strikes of the Stop & Shop workers that were going on — and feel empowered by and committed to their union.

Ben S: What Adam said. Also there’s the constant challenge of knowing what issues will galvanize people into action. You’d think it might be raising rents or failure of management to fix things, but sometimes people have accepted those as just the way it is. At Stonybrook, the rudeness of the onsite manager was the main issue, that then connected in to the other issues the tenants are facing. At Fairlawn, it’s the fact that kids aren’t allowed to play outside that can get people talking at the door and interested in fighting back. 

PEWG blog: Following up, what are some ways tenant canvassing can be made more effective?

Evan L: Our main focus is always getting the tenants themselves to be the ones doing the canvassing and organizing. They are so much more effective than we could ever be, because they live in the building and they know exactly the issues that their neighbours are experiencing, and they have credibility when they talk about them. When we were canvassing to get 50 signatures on the list of demands, we tried to make sure that we were with tenant leaders on every single canvass. This made the work a lot easier and more effective, and of course was great for getting the tenant leaders to feel more ownership over the project. In future organizing efforts, it would be good to get the leaders from Stonybrook or Fairlawn to go on those initial canvases with us. They could connect the struggles between their building and whatever building we are organizing at in a way that would be really powerful. 

PEWG blog: Now that you have made tenants aware of their organizing power, what or how else can you work on building a class consciousness? And how would that tie into a “base-building” strategy?

Evan L: I think that the raising of class consciousness is a pretty integral part of organizing in your building, and we haven’t had to do all that much intentionally. To give an example, I was talking to one of the tenant leaders to set up a meeting for the next week, and right before we got off the phone she said “Oh wait, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, isn’t what we’re doing at Stonybrook exactly like what’s happening at Stop and Shop?”. Engaging in collective struggle is itself a transformative experience, and the breakdown of some of the atomisation that we experience in our daily lives means that people begin to identify with the people around them in opposition to the things that are causing their shared problems. That being said, we have certainly tried to highlight the fact that this is a class struggle, and especially the fact that the landlords of the building are literal cartoon villain billionaires. And we want to continue connecting the struggle at Stonybrook to broader struggles against gentrification and displacement in our discussions with tenant leaders. 

Ben S: Evan’s point about collective struggle being a transformative experience is key. Connecting this struggle to the broader struggles in the housing justice movement and the struggle for liberation at large is more difficult, but that’s why we organize the tenants. 

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Two of the core tenant union organizers spoke about the abusive management at the rally in Stonybrook Village

PEWG blog: What are some of the next steps the housing working group are looking to take in regards to tenant organizing?

Evan L: We would love to start organizing another building; at this point it’s a question of capacity. Stomp Out Slumlords in DC goes on biweekly canvasses to people facing eviction both to give them know your rights material and encourage them to go to court, and also to identify new buildings to organize in. We have done similar canvasses in the past, we have the data to do them, and we would love to reinstate them as a regular thing so that we can keep identifying new buildings to organize in. We just need someone to bottom line making that happen.. So if anyone reading this wants to volunteer let us know!

Ben S: Come to a housing WG meeting (third Mondays of every month)! Or one of our tenant organizing trainings – the next one is on Monday July 8, 7-9 pm at the Democracy Centre (45 Mt. Auburn St, Cambridge). Or just post on the slack asking to get involved. Or email us at boston-dsa-housing@googlegroups.com! We always need people, and we started this having no idea what we were doing, so it’s always a collective learning process. We want to do this but more, which requires building up our capacity.

PEWG blog: What’s next for the Stonybrook Tenants Union? How can Boston DSA members keep supporting them?

Evan L: This is a little up in the air right now. We are starting to see some reactions from management after press coverage came out about the rally – the CEO of Lincoln Ave Capital replied extensively in the Boston Banner piece. They are denying a lot of the issues, especially around large rent raises, but according to the tenants some of their behavior is starting to change. Two of the tenant leaders reported that they got their lease renewal notice and didn’t get any rent increase for the year. Management has also started making a few cosmetic changes to the building, like repainting the stairs. That being said they still refuse to acknowledge or meet with the union, and that ultimately is our goal. The tenants are prepping for a meeting with two politicians on July 2nd – Sonia Chang Diaz and Michelle Wu are planning to come to Stonybrook to meet with the union. We’re also talking about ways in which we can continue to pressure management and to grow the union. For the latter point, the tenants want to host a more low key social event over the summer, like a potluck, where tenants who have been hesitant to get involved can come and talk to their neighbours and learn more about what’s going on. 

Ben S: What Evan said. Boston DSA can support them by being ready to show up when needed. Or by plugging in to our housing work. Like we’ve said, we always need more people and everyone is welcome.