The right to organize to improve your community is a fundamental hallmark of American life. Yet low-income tenants who live in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-assisted properties, and the community organizers who seek to empower them, often face harassment and retaliation for attempting to organize to improve their housing.
Often working in tandem with community organizers, residents of HUD-assisted housing come together to form associations that represent the interests of all tenants in the housing development. Tenant associations play an important role in ensuring that resident voices are included in decision making made about the long-term affordability and quality of their homes.
Unfortunately, too frequently, property owners and managers do not respect tenants’ right to organize. In Texas, community organizers have been threatened with arrest for meeting with tenants on the property. In Michigan, a retaliatory fee was levied for use of the community room because lawyers and organizers sought to use it to work with tenants. In Illinois, a property manager refused to allow tenants to hold a tenant association election.
Perhaps most egregiously, in New York City, a large property management company proudly proclaims its policy of attempting to defuse tenant organizations by “discourag[ing] tenants from organizing into action groups” and ensuring that “such situations are identified early and the leaders are spoken to individually and at length.” This policy calls into serious question the management company’s compliance with, and respect for, HUD’s regulations, which provide for strong tenant participation rights. Yet, even when this blatant policy was brought to HUD’s attention, the online posting—and the property management’s ability to continue to operate in this fashion—remains unaddressed.
HUD regulations, at 24 C.F.R. part 245, recognize the importance of tenant participation in creating and maintaining good living environments. HUD requires owners and property managers to recognize tenant associations and organizing committees and to not interfere with any actions reasonably related to the creation or operation of a tenant association. The regulations specifically allow tenants to conduct protected activities, including canvassing, distributing flyers, and holding on-site tenant meetings without management interference. These protections extend to non-tenant community organizers, as well.
HUD recently published a notice that explains the procedure that HUD officials are supposed to follow when a violation of the right to organize is brought to their attention, including the imposition of sanctions when an investigation shows that tenants’ rights are being interfered with. Yet, HUD has never issued a notice of violation to an owner despite serious and widespread violations, allowing owners to violate the regulations with impunity.
While this is a longstanding issue, a recent HUD-funded program that partners lawyers with community organizers has increased awareness of violations of the right to organize and resulted in more complaints to HUD. The program provides legal and community organizing support to tenant associations to preserve, improve, and maintain their housing. Along with the National Housing Law Project, the Shriver Center has sent a letter to HUD illustrating the variety of violations throughout the country and including recommendations for how to protect the right to organize.
HUD must protect tenants’ right to organize and participate in protected tenant association activities. When owners and management threaten tenants with eviction, threaten community organizers with arrest, and deny access to on-site meeting space, these actions weaken the organizing effort at the building. Too often, when faced with retaliatory actions by management, tenants are afraid to participate because they are fearful of losing their homes. Until HUD begins to hold owners accountable, the right to organize and participate in many HUD-funded multifamily housing developments will remain elusive.