TUESDAY, April 7 — A coalition of local renters are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to build solidarity among tenants in the capital city, pushing back against slumlords who they claim charge too much rent and don’t do enough to support tenants.
At least 75 people have joined the Lansing Tenants Union since it formed last week. Their goals: hold landlords accountable. Prevent illegal evictions. Provide resources for tenants. And the biggie: Push landlords across the city to stop charging them rent amid a global health crisis.
“We have not come forth with an exact list of demands yet. We’re still looking at what that’s going to look like,” said Rikki Reynolds, a representative for the newly formed organization. “We’re asking that landlords follow the law and refrain from illegal evictions. Beyond that, instead of retaliating against tenants for not paying rent, we’re asking them to sit this one out.”
Reynolds said that many renters in Lansing work in the service or retail industry — sectors that have been gutted amid Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ongoing “Stay Safe, Stay Home” executive order. And as a result, tenants in the city have been finding it much more difficult to pay rent.
Whitmer signed an executive order last month suspending statewide evictions, even against tenants that cannot stay current on their rent. But the order is poised to expire April 17; And local residents are concerned there might be an onslaught of evictions in the summer.
“This rent freeze is nothing more than debt for tenants,” Reynolds added. “This money isn’t going to just come to them, and it’s just going to make the burden worse on tenants who already struggled to afford rent. We’re looking at the possibility of an actual rent suspension.”
Reynolds said that by forming together as a group, individual tenants will be able to have a newfound sense of collective power over landlords — especially abusive ones — in the city. Eventually, she hopes the group can turn their ideas into policies at the Lansing City Council.
“This crisis has only exacerbated problems that tenants had for years,” said organizer Jamie Erdheim. “Most of the service industry is laid off and this became a very serious situation for tenants very quickly. We just feel there’s no safety net for renters in Lansing. We’re coming together because we felt scared, frustrated and powerless against some of the landlords here.”
Tenants unions aren’t a novel concept. Mostly staffed by volunteers, several have operated in major U.S. cities for decades as both an informative resource for renters and as a collective voice to help them stand up against shoddy living conditions, price-gouging landlords and more.
Organizers in Lansing said they’ve mirrored their approach after other unions like those in San Francisco and Ann Arbor. Its mission statement: “Build power and solidarity among tenants in Lansing as a member-driven tenant union through organizing, direct action, coalition building and civic engagement.” And the group is already building some support at Lansing City Hall.
“It is important for us, as tenants, to stand in solidarity with each other,” said Councilman Brandon Betz, also a rent-paying member of the new union. “Tenants have more power to fight for their rights when they stand together, which is really important during this crisis.”
Betz said more than half of Lansing rents, but yet they’re still underrepresented in government.
“This union is an organization that will give renters a stronger voice in our city government,” Betz added. “I hope that this union can help provide some protections for renters in our city during this crisis and change our housing policies long term to benefit the working class.”
Organizers are already working on draft policies that Betz can submit to the City Council. Those interested in more information or joining the union can do so on its Facebook page.
“The only way tenants can really have power is if we’re all together and we’re all on the same page,” Erdheim added. “It’s still coming together, but ideally we’re going to do some type of big action in May like calling for a suspension of all rent and mortgages until this crisis is over.”