How Renters can be Neighborhood Advocates

37% of all American households rent their homes and yet the voice of renters is often underrepresented in local decision-making.

Unless you live in a big city like San Francisco or Chicago where a large percentage of units are rentals, tenant concerns can easily go unnoticed, especially when many neighborhoods have rental units interspersed rather than clumped together in clear zones. In fact, another surprising statistic about rental housing in America is that a full 35% of it is single-family homes, and an additional 18% is 2-4 unit buildings. That means more than half of rental housing is the US is not gigantic apartment buildings but modest houses and small duplexes, fourplexes, etc. That type of housing is all around us, yet because it blends with single family owner-occupied homes, it’s often overlooked.

There are, especially in big cities, examples of tenants uniting around specific issues that directly impact them, particularly when it comes to housing, but on day-to-day neighborhood issues like speeding cars, trash collection and capital improvement projects, not as many. 

Invisible Renters

Personally, as a renter, I feel somewhat invisible. For our readers who are renters, maybe you can relate to this. (And for those who own, there was probably a time in your life when you rented and can remember this experience.) I don’t directly pay property taxes, so I can’t use that as leverage in conversations with local leaders. In addition, due to the concentration of apartments in my neighborhood, I am merely one resident out of perhaps 300 people who live on my block. That means a lot less than if I owned one house out of thirty on my block. (Of course, that also means more collective voices if I were to get all my neighbors to rally around an issue. More on that in a minute.) I rarely receive notices about neighborhood meetings and when I do, they have almost always already occurred by the time I get the letter. In short, I feel disregarded and ignored as a tenant.

There are also the insidious stereotypes of renters—that they are transient, that they don’t contribute to a community as much as owners, that they don’t make good neighbors, and so on. How many condo associations and home owners associations have policies about what percent of their units can be rentals and how much they’ll allow rentals to live in their community? How many people, when choosing to buy a new home, consider how much of the surrounding homes are rentals and look upon a high percentage unfavorably? These negative views are another reason it can be harder to make your voice heard as a renter.

Of course, there is a kernel of truth to some of these perceptions: Renting is a short-term proposition and many renters do move more often than homeowners. The renters in my neighborhood tend to be younger, some are in college or graduate school, many are childless… So they aren’t as tied down. I’ll confess that it’s only after living a year in my current apartment and signing another year’s lease that I’ve begun to feel like I’m truly a part of this neighborhood and am familiar enough with the issues here to begin to be a neighborhood activist. But just because I and others in my situation aren’t living in our homes for decades, that doesn’t mean we care any less about our streets, our sidewalks, our businesses, and our parks than owners do.

Perspective from a Seasoned Neighborhood Activist

To get some perspective on this topic, I contacted friend of Strong Towns and former mayor of Seattle, Michael McGinn, because I knew he had experience in citizen-based advocacy. Last year, he wrote an article for Crosscut (a news site based in the Pacific Northwest) specifically talking about the challenges of renter engagement and the prejudices renters can face.

Photo from  NCRC

Photo from NCRC

While McGinn rented in Seattle for several years, he says he didn’t become incredibly active in neighborhood issues until after he bought a home in the Greenwood area. In our conversation, this trajectory is something that McGinn and I recognized as fairly typical: While renters can move frequently, purchasing a home means a multiyear commitment to a neighborhood, so owners can more easily become invested in neighborhood issues. It’s not that renters don’t care, it’s just that they’re less likely to be concerned with long-term problems.

One of the issues McGinn first became interested in was getting sidewalks in Greenwood so that he and his neighbors could safely walk to the grocery store, take their kids to school, and so on. The desire for sidewalks led him to attend some neighborhood meetings, which eventually landed him the role of head of his neighborhood’s community council. He didn't set out the do that, but his passion for the issue of pedestrian safety led him there.

In our conversation, McGinn stressed that his research and his experience in neighborhood activism shows that, just because a group calls themselves a neighborhood organization or says they work to represent the whole neighborhood, that doesn’t mean they actually do. A recent report that McGinn sites in his article showed that in every Seattle district council (a form of local government), no more than 40% of the councilors representing any district were renters, and for many of the councils, the amount of councilors who rent was less than 10%. This is in spite of the fact that the Seattle population is over 50% renters. Failing to represent renter can also mean cutting out the demographics that typically rent (young people, people of color, etc.).

When the existing organization fails you, start your own.

So what should you do if you’ve attended a community meeting and felt that as a renter (or any other type of person, for that matter), your voice was ignored and unrepresented? McGinn says you shouldn’t be discouraged. Many different sorts of groups can help organize around neighborhood issues. In McGinn’s time, he’s seen environmental groups, bicycle groups, tenant unions and immigrant organizations all take a stand on neighborhood issues.

Want to slow cars on a busy street in your neighborhood? Gather five or six neighbors who also care about this, give yourselves a name, and start talking about how to make change. You don’t need 501(c)(3) status or even a website—just a group of people who care.

And if none of those coalitions are present in your area or seem to fit your concerns, McGinn recommends just starting your own group. (Check out McGinn’s podcast interview with Sonja Trauss, one of the founders of the YIMBY movement to hear an inspiring story about tenant organizing and activism.) Want to slow cars on a busy street in your neighborhood? Gather five or six neighbors who also care about this, give yourselves a name—the “North Side Association for Safe Streets,” for instance—and start talking about how to make change. You don’t need 501(c)(3) status or even a website—just a group of people who care.

McGinn advises that you don’t completely ignore the more established neighborhood forums, but check in with them occasionally and try to make inroads where you can.  With a few neighbors by your side, you’ll have more sway in a conversation. “Even just 5 people standing up in a meeting saying ‘I bike’ or ‘I support this’ helps,” says McGinn. “It’s a lot harder to yell at your neighbor when she’s saying ‘I just want to be safe crossing the street.’”

Organizing around an issue makes a lot of sense from a renters’ perspective. Renters may not have the time or interest in showing up to every single community meeting or be as concerned about plans for a new community center that’s years from breaking ground. But issues like safer streets, bike lanes, and new developments are all tangible, concrete things to rally around.

More Tips for Getting Active

In addition to McGinn’s valuable encouragement to start your own neighborhood group if none of the existing ones work for you, I have three more tips for getting active as a renter:

1. Get to know your neighbors. This can be hard in a rental-heavy neighborhood. If you live in an apartment, you’re probably less likely to encounter people sitting on their porch or gardening since most units don’t have porches or gardens. Additionally, because renters move more regularly than homeowners, it’s more challenging to get to know all of your neighbors before some of them leave and others move in. In the apartments where I’ve lived, there is no culture of bringing homemade cookies or pies over to a new neighbor (although maybe it's different in other cities). In fact, I only know a handful of people in my building and many residents don’t even say hi to one another in the hallway. I wish it weren’t this way and I’ve tried to break through that, but it’s the unfortunate reality.

Getting to know your neighbors is helpful for personal reasons—new friends conveniently located steps away, someone to hold onto a spare key if you get locked out, etc.—but getting to know your neighbors is even more helpful for community reasons. When the water main outside my apartment broke earlier this year and public works employees seemed to be on my street every day and night for weeks, I was able to talk to my neighbors about the situation. Is your water still cloudy upstairs? Yes. Did you hear that jackhammer at 2am this morning? Yes, I contacted the landlord about it. Did you notice the fire hydrant is still leaking? Yes, I emailed our alderman to complain. Build your coalition with the people around you.

2. Find out when neighborhood meetings are and show up. Before you invest in starting your own group, do take the time to visit the existing neighborhood organizations to see whether they’re involved in the issues you care about. This will give you a sense of present concerns in your neighborhood and the process for advocating, as well as connect you with local leaders. If, in the end, you decide it’s not for you, you’ve still given yourself a better picture of the neighborhood landscape.

3. Work through your landlord. Get to know your landlord and figure out what his/her involvement is in local issues. Does she live two hours away and hardly ever visit the property? Or does she live upstairs? If your landlord is more present in the community and you’re able to develop a good relationship with this person, you can work with them on issues you care about. If the landlord owns several properties, that person’s voice could have more sway with local leaders. Of course, working with your landlord can be challenging, especially if they’re not very easy to reach or communicate with. But it can also be very productive; after all, they need their tenants in order to make money and if a dissatisfied tenant threatens to leave because of issues in the neighborhood, that might encourage the landlord to step up.

I want to conclude this essay by saying I’m not writing this because I’m an expert at neighborhood involvement. Not by a long stretch. But one of my biggest goals of 2017 is to get better at it, so I hope to be able to build my knowledge and share it with you as I go.

Please share your own perspectives on this in the comments. I’d love your ideas and feedback.

(Top photo by JPM-ATX)

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