A New Group Is Trying to Help Those Who Rent Homes Give Themselves a Leg Up in the Fight for Fair Wages and Housing in Houston
By Jacob Santillan
“As Houston’s population grows and developers gentrify neighborhoods, landlords are prone to raise rents and ignore the housing rights of tenants,” Socialist Alternative Houston wrote on their February 4 Facebook event page. “Now is the time for the organized efforts of tenants and activists to struggle against this trend, through counseling, education, legal complaints, and mobilization.”
Socialist Alternative Houston is a new organization, the local offshoot of an international network. They invited Houstonians to join them in a panel discussion on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and tenants’ rights in a city that’s becoming less affordable.
I spoke with one of the organizers of the event, Matthew Wackerle (who, in the interest of disclosure, I consider a personal friend), about the “Fight for $15,” some of the struggles tenants face, and what organized and informed people might be able to do about these and other things.
The “Fighting for $15/hr and Fair Housing in Houston” event and presentation was hosted by your group, Socialist Alternative Houston. Who or what is Socialist Alternative?
Socialist Alternative is a democratic socialist organization. It is the American affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International. We’ve existed since the late 1980’s, and we also are well-known for having one of our members elected to office. That would be [City] Council-member Kshama Sawant in Seattle, which is also our largest branch. We have, at this point, about a thousand members around the country and also new branches that are popping up all over the place.
The branch in Houston is about a month old, now. We’re probably the fastest growing organization on the left right now, I think in large part because our politics emphasize working class demands and the needs of working people. You can’t really wage that kind of struggle just by emphasizing ideology. Everything we do, we go for feasible victories that can connect the demands of the working class today to the more revolutionary demands that we might have, which is ultimately the replacement of the capitalist system with a democratic socialist model.
What was the purpose of the presentation on February 4th?
We approached it from both the topics of $15 an hour wages, how that can be accomplished in a city like Houston, or any city in Texas because an amendment to the Texas Minimum Wage Act does not allow cities to raise their minimum wage above the federal minimum wage. That’s actually because of Houston which, back in the late 90’s, tried to raise its minimum wage beyond the federal minimum wage. It didn’t get through, and afterwards, Texas businesses freaked out about it, went to their friends in the legislature and said “Hey, can you make sure this doesn’t happen again?” As conservative as they are, they always throw [local control] out the window when it comes to anything that benefits working people. They wanted to make sure people in these cities can’t have the right to raise to raise their minimum wages which raises serious obstacles and makes the struggle for $15 per hour different in Houston than, say, what Socialist Alternative and other organizations were able to accomplish in Seattle. You can’t have a referendum or city council vote to raise the minimum wage here. We discussed the various possibilities of raising wages here in Houston.
We also approached it by proposing the idea of organizing a tenants’ union in Houston. Tenants unions exist in other parts of the country, particularly in the industrial North or Rust-Belt areas where you have a stronger tradition of progressive politics. It’s something you don’t really see so much in the South. In fact, I can’t think of any tenants’ unions that do exist in Texas whatsoever. There is the Austin Tenant’s Council, which helps low-income tenants with litigation, with advising, it educates people on their rights as tenants, but it doesn’t really do so much when it comes to organizing tenants.
We had about 25 people show up for the meeting, and it was a really good crowd of people. It wasn’t like it was a bunch of activists.
The usual types who show up to everything anyway?
Oh yeah, absolutely not. In fact, I recognized maybe one other person in the room, other than my friends who are in Socialist Alternative. So, we basically just presented on those two issues. The issue that got everyone excited was the tenants’ union idea.
What is a tenants’ union?
It’s not technically a union in the sense we think about labor for instance. There are very specific qualifications for an organization to be considered a labor union in the United States. The way tenants’ unions tend to operate is as an association of people who are renting homes and apartments from landlords. They might be paying dues into the organization so that it could operate in the same way people in labor unions do when they pay union dues. It’s there to enable them to speak with one voice instead of just being on their own facing their landlords.
That might mean compelling landlords to negotiate with multiple tenants in a given area, which would include their representatives from the tenants’ union if that would be possible. That would include educating the public on their rights as tenants, and even organizing things like tenant strikes, which we haven’t seen so much in recent years in the United States but wasn’t extremely uncommon in the ’60s and 70’s.
If all of a sudden, apartment owners here in Houston would want to dramatically raise rent, or if they were not meeting the needs and concerns of tenants, if they were treating them unfairly. Even things like, under Texas law, people might think landlords are obligated to get rid of bedbugs, but they’re not. There can be a massive bedbug infestation in an apartment complex, and landlords, especially for lower income apartments, they’ll be like “Screw you. No, we’re not going to do anything about that.” But, if, say, tenants start to withhold rent — if one tenant does that, they’re probably going to get evicted, but lets say everybody does that? That kind of changes the dynamics because you can’t evict everyone at once.
It’s also to draw attention to things like that to the public eye, to shame landlords who are abusive to the rights of their tenants, the safety concerns of the tenants, and sometimes even the tenants themselves. Sexual harassment by a property manager or a landlord is something that happens all the time. Telling residents “Give me a bribe, or else,” is another thing that happens a lot. Also, just providing a forum for tenants to get together and discuss their concerns either at individual complexes or multiple complexes in the city of Houston.
Low income residents, especially, are not informed of their rights as tenants, or the rights they do know of are not exhausted, or they may not even know they have any rights whatsoever. Quite frequently, the landlord or the agent of the landlord will lie to them about what their rights are or are not. Many low-income residents of Houston are immigrants or undocumented immigrants, and while it’s totally illegal under the Fair Housing Act to do something like threaten to call ICE on them if they don’t give a bribe. That’s illegal — that’s discrimination against someone based on their nationality. It doesn’t matter whether they’re here legally or not; that is not something that a landlord is allowed to do. But they’ll do it, and they do it all the time. They may not know there’s anything they can do about it.
There are also online resources a lot of people don’t know about, like Texas Tenant Advisor, where they can go if they need to dispute a deposit that’s been taken, or they need to make a repair request. What I’ve discussed about what can happen to tenants isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
Where can people go for more information?
The best place to go right now, if you’re using Facebook, would be to go to our Facebook page, Socialist Alternative Houston. Another Facebook page which has just been started is the Coalition of Tenants’ Unions page, which our tenants’ union will be a part of when we get it started. It’s there to share experiences and information between the different tenants’ unions across the country. They can also just email me at mwackerle [at] gmail.com and I can put them in touch people that we have organizing here right now. We will have a separate Facebook page, website and contact information for the tenants union. I can also be reached by phone at 512-541-7769.
What else does Socialist Alternative have going on the near future?
This is going to be the focus of Socialist Alternative in Houston for the foreseeable future, and it’s going to be the one big thing that we’re going to be working on. We haven’t decided upon the next meeting date and location to discuss the next steps of building the tenants’ union, but we will be putting it out there on the internet soon, and we will let people know where they can go to attend the meeting and what kind of thing we’re going to be talking about. When we ended the meeting, we were talking about the basics. We’ve got to come up with a name, how we’re going to get the word out and we’re going to come up with official roles that people are going to have within this new tenants’ union.
by Guest Author