There's a rising wave of tenant militants in the land, and renters have begun to flex political muscle they've never before used.
Landlords and condominium converters -- who are not without some clout themselves -- are doing some organizing of their own to meet the challenge.
"There have been tenant movements before, but they have tended to be sporadic and haven't been able to build stable organizations," said Peter Drier, assistant professor of sociology at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "Tenants tended to be more transitory."
But now, "every urban area of the country has a tenants movement," said Drier, who sympathizes with renter aims. "In some parts of the country it's well developed and has a number of political successes. In other area's it's fledgling."
Among the strongest areas of renter activity are California and New Jersey. Drier says New Jersey has the strongest pro-tenant laws in the country.
You don't need a pocket calculator to tell you that there are many more renters than there are landlords, and such has always been the case. The potential of great political power has always existed.
What is happening now, observers report, is that "traditional" tenants are being joined by a new class of renters.
Apartments historically have been a way-station for young families on the road to home ownership. They have lived in rental units, but only briefly. But steeply rising prices, interest rates and operating costs are keeping many of these sojourners frozen in apartments.
"Increasingly, I think middle-income people are going to be tenants for the rest of their lives," Drier said.
Dreier's theory draws agreement from John Atlas, a Newark legal services attorney who is an officer of the New Jersey Tenant Union, co-founder of the new National Tenant Union and one of the founders of Shelterforce, a national tenants rights publication. And he believes that renters are beginning to identify with one another.
"As in the early stges of the women's movement and the civil rights movement and the labor movement, tenants are deepening their tenant's consciousness," Atlas said. "They are beginning to think of themselves as members of a group."
Drier believes there now is a coalition of poor- and moderate-income people. "There are differnces in what they are interested in, but they do share interests in being secure from eviction, keeping rents down and having secure and well-maintained buildings." Rent control is one of the top issues," Drier said. So are condominium conversion protections and "more tenant voice in decisions about how buildings are run."
Drier believes there should be tax writeoffs for renters, a national tenant-landlord act, government housing programs to rechannel rent subsidy money to tenant and community groups that would start housing cooperative and an assistant secretary for tenant affairs in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Property owners, who steadfastly insist that they're also victims of rising costs, have not been sitting back watching tenant groups push for their goals. The National Rental Housing Council, a landlord group founded about three years ago, has been joined by condo developers seeking to present their views in Washington. The organization has been rechristened the National Multi Housing Council and it is making its voice heard.
Richard Fore, president of the council, takes a concilatory stance toward the tenant activists. Admitting that the landlords sometimes have been insensitvie to renter needs, he said. "We're trying to deemphasize the confrontation and trying to build a coalition."
Fore believes that renters and owners should work together to convince government to eliminate red tape and remove roadblocks in the way of new apartment construction.
"When you have more production, a more competitive situation, it's better for the resident," he asserted. "And we would like to participate in greater production. . . . We say quite frankly that this rising tenant militancy is wasting a lot of their resources and our resources. We shouldn't be bucking heads. We should be working on problems."
But Fore isn't shy in drawing the line when it comes to some of the things sought by tenants.
"To organize and work with owners to solve problems in apartment projects is one thing, but to help manage apartments and make personnel and financial decisions is impossible. The buck has to stop with those who have a financial interest in the project."
Rent control and condominium conversion moratoriums are counter-productive, Fore believes, and his organization stoutly opposes them.
The Multi Housing Council says there have been mixed results on the rent control front nationally. It reported in late September that 36 jurisdictions in 13 states nationally had experienced some form of rent control action since May, ranging from court decisions to ballot initiatives. However, of the 36 areas, eight rejected rent control proposals or had moves under way attempting to repeal existing legislation.