- Empowers tenants to establish and operate tenant associations and advocate with their landlords for improvements to their housing
- Model ordinance builds off of best practices adopted in other cities and states
Across the country, states and cities have adopted laws to create strong tenant organizing protections in rental properties. Texas cities could provide similar protections by adopting a local ordinance protecting tenants and nonprofit groups working to establish and operate tenant organizations and engaging in advocacy to address conditions at their apartment complexes.
Tenant organizing is a form of community organizing that enables tenants to advocate collectively for themselves and creates a more even distribution of power between tenants and their landlords. Tenants typically mobilize initially in response to severe problems at their complexes, such as substandard living conditions, harassment and intimidation by landlords, and the threat of mass displacement. By taking collective action through a tenant association, tenants have a far greater capacity to address problems with their landlords.
Trained organizers with nonprofit organizations are a critical component of successful tenant organizing and the formation and operation of tenant associations. Organizers assist with conducting outreach to tenants, identifying potential tenant leaders and common issues, educating tenants about their rights, and supporting tenants in developing their leadership and advocacy skills. The support of trained organizers is especially important in the early stages of forming a new tenant association when tenants are usually too intimidated by the threat of landlord retaliation to canvass other tenants by themselves.
Currently, tenants and nonprofit groups supporting tenants have very few organizing protections in Texas, particularly in apartment complexes that are not federally subsidized. Many tenants are afraid to participate in organizing activities, and tenant organizing activities are often blocked by landlords. On several occasions, police officers have even stepped in to block tenant organizers.
The Texas Property Code bars landlords from retaliating against tenants within six months of the tenant establishing, attempting to establish, or participating in a tenant organization. But after six months, a landlord can retaliate against a tenant for engaging in organizing activities. Even when retaliation occurs within the six-month ban period in violation of the Property Code, the retaliatory action often quashes any organizing efforts underway at the property because of its intimidating impact on tenants. Another issue with relying on the state’s retaliation protections is that calling the police to the property is not a prohibited retaliatory activity under the Property Code.
Furthermore, trained organizers have no protections whatsoever to support tenants in Texas with organizing activities at private apartment complexes. Organizers face conviction for criminal trespassing when engaging in organizing activities at apartment complexes if they have received notice from the landlord that they are not allowed on the property.
In several types of federally-subsidized properties—such as project-based Section 8 and Section 811 apartments—tenants and tenant organizers have substantial organizing protections. Tenants in these properties have an affirmative right to establish and operate tenant organizations, and owners must make community rooms and other appropriate spaces available for tenant organizations.
Additionally, HUD has enumerated various protected activities for tenants and tenant organizers in their work to establish and operate a tenant organization at these covered properties. These activities include distributing leaflets in common areas; placing leaflets at or under tenants’ doors; conducting door-to-door canvassing to ascertain tenants’ interest in establishing a tenant organization; and convening regularly scheduled tenant organization meetings in a space on site and accessible to tenants, in a manner that is fully independent of management representatives. Owners of these federally-subsidized properties must allow tenant organizers to assist tenants in establishing and operating tenant organizations, but if the development has a consistently enforced, written policy against canvassing, then a tenant organizer must be accompanied by a tenant while on the property.
The Tool: A Model Tenant Organizing Ordinance for Texas Cities
Texas cities can play a key role in supporting tenant organization through the adoption of an ordinance protecting tenant organizing. In drafting a model ordinance, it is useful to think about two populations who need protections: tenants and tenant organizers (that is, nonprofit staff and volunteers who are not tenants but work to support tenants in the creation and operation of tenants’ associations). Successful tenant organizing would not be possible without also protecting the work of this latter group—tenant organizers—who provide tenants with the critical outreach support, leadership training, and other support needed to launch and operate a new association. Tenant organizers are especially critical in the early stages of forming a tenant association, when tenants are usually too afraid to participate by themselves in any organizing activities on the property.Here is a model tenant organizing ordinance for Texas cities, which builds off national best practices and covers tenants living in mobile home parks as well as those living in apartment complexes.
The model ordinance delineates specifically protected organizing activities, such as initiating contact with residents and distributing leaflets in common areas. Federal regulations governing HUD-assisted properties and D.C.’s similar ordinance include these protections for tenant organizing. This ordinance also gives landlords the right to adopt written canvassing policies that require tenant organizers to be invited onto the premises by a tenant.