Tenants are the sleeping giant in American politics. Angry and frustrated, the giant is slowly beginning to awaken. In every major city and urban area, tenants are engaging in a variety of activities -- rent strikes, court suits, squatting, lobbying, mass rallies, picketing and sit-ins -- that do not often make headlines, but are changing the shape of urban politics.
Like the early stages of the women's and black movements, tenants are just beginning to develop "tenant consciousness," to see themselves as a group with common problems. The issues involved include rent increases, inadequate building maintenance and security, leases that favor landlords, security deposits, displacement for condominium conversion, the lack of tenant voice in building management policies, and racial, sexual and neighborhood discrimination.
In over 22 states, tenants groups have pressured politicians to enact legislation ensuring fairer treatment for tenants, and at least 12 other states have bills pending. The momentum for rent control, now widespread in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and California, is building at a fewer pace. Tenant groups in these states have been instrumental in electing tenant advocates to state and local offices.
Tenant militancy is no longer confined to the poor, the urban minorities and the elderly. What is new is the postwar baby-boom generation of middle-class renters who grew up expecting to be single-family homeowners. But as the price of homes skyrockets (the average price is now $70,000), more and more households will be shut out of this American dream. Until recently, most tenants viewed themselves as being on a way station toward homeownership. The proportion of tenants in the population fell from a high of 57 percent in 1940 to 35 percent in the 1970s, suggesting that tenants might become an increasingly small minority. But the trend has come to a screeching halt. Many of those who have failed to acquire a home already can expect to spend the rest of their lives as tenants. These children of middle-class homeowners are troubled by the sense of powerlessness and insecurity that comes with renting. Their frustrations have triggered this new round of tenant activism -- and account for much of its success.
In most major cities, tenants make up between 50 and 75 percent of the population. But little new rental housing is being built. The skyrocketing cost of gasoline and the changes in life styles have made city living more attractive, especially for affluent young professionals. The invasion of these "gentry" has driven up apartment rents and led to the conversion of rental units to high-priced condominiums and cooperatives, pushing out many low-and moderate-income tenants in the process. Red-lining by banks and "arson for profit" by landlords have led to widespread abandonment of older buildings, further depleting the rental housing stock and increasing rents. The current rental vacancy rate nationwide is slightly under five percent -- the lowest in recent memory. In most cities, it is even lower.
Housing in the largest single item in the household budget, and most renters are digging deeper into their pockets just to keep a roof over their heads. Almost half the nation's tenants pay more than the government's recommended one-quarter of household income for rent.
With vacancy rates so low and rents rising, tenants are more reluctant than ever to move from their current apartments, since there are few alternatives available. As a result, they have more of a stake in the conditions of their present units.
These forces have triggered a nationwide renters' revolt that is growing each week. Confined so far to local and state levels, there is growing awareness of the need for a nationally coordinated movement to lobby for federal legislation, acknowledged by recent hearings in Congress and by a GAO study calling rental housing a national crisis that requires "immediate attention."
Such federal legislation could provide increased subsidies for renters; grants for tenant-controlled cooperatives; income-tax deductions for tenants (for their share of a landlord's mortgage-interest and property-tax payments); increased mortgage interest rates for luxury housing and reduced rates for necessity housing; protection against condominium and cooperative conversions and arbitrary evictions; an assistant secretary for tenant affairs at HUD; and a National Landlord-Tenant Relations Act to protect tenant organizing. a
As tenants begin to flex their political muscles, real estate and landlord groups have begun a counteroffensive. But tenants have shown that where they can mount grass-roots campaigns, form coalitions with other neighborhood, church, civil rights and labor groups, and enlist the support of elected officials, they can overcome the greater financial resources of their opponents.
During this decade, tenants will increasingly be heard in the halls of city councils, state legislatures and Congress, as they place their demands for "less rent and more control" on the political agenda.