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What is a tenant union and what are their goals?

Tenant unions are formed to advocate for the collective rights of tenants. The union might be made up of tenants who live in a particular building, have the same landlord, or reside in a general geographic area.

In many ways, a tenant union is similar to a labor union. Instead of tenants negotiating with a landlord individually, tenants negotiate as a group, with a representative, and often bring their concerns to the union instead of directly to the landlord.

Typical goals for tenant unions may include fixing problems in common areas, resolving individual tenant issues, establishing eviction protections, and minimizing rent increases. The tenants may negotiate over general lease terms and advocate for the landlord to take certain actions. In some cases, the tenants may collectively threaten not to renew their leases if the landlord does not make changes.

Yes, tenant unions are legal. Federal and state laws protect tenants' rights to form a union. Landlords generally may not interfere with, or penalize tenants for joining or forming a union. If your tenants joined or formed a union, or are considering doing either, you may want to talk to a lawyer about what it may mean to your business.

Where have tenant unions been successfully organized?

Tenant unions have been successfully organized in various parts of the United States. They are most common in large northeastern cities, California, and Washington. If you are in an area with strong renters protections, or in close proximity to a mid-sized city, there is a good chance that a tenant union, or a group of tenants looking to form a tenant union, is nearby.

How do tenant unions affect landlords?

The main impact a tenant union has on landlords is that it changes how you bargain with your tenants, and may change how maintenance and repairs get done. While many landlords are used to creating a standard Lease Agreement and not giving tenants options to change it, a union may have more power, as a group, to negotiate for specific terms. A landlord is still free to accept or reject any proposed changes.

What landlords may find is that unions fight to make sure lease terms and standard tenant rights are enforced. Unions may also be more likely to go to court or engage in political lobbying if they are not satisfied with the response they get from a landlord. For landlords, this means it is a good practice to honor your lease obligations and follow the state and local housing laws.

A tenant union generally does not affect a landlord's legal rights. It typically only changes how landlords communicate with tenants, resolve problems, and make changes to leases or the property.

Landlords still have the same legal rights to set rents, evict tenants, or change lease renewal terms as you would without a union. You may, however, be limited in certain respects depending on any agreements you may have made with the union. You can also require tenants to directly contact you with any issues through a Complaint to Landlord or Tenant's Notice of Unhealthy and Unsafe Conditions.

Are there benefits of a tenant union to landlords?

Landlords can benefit from tenant unions by using them to help maintain good tenant relations. Tenant unions can help landlords address tenant concerns in a diplomatic way, and can potentially provide a source of referrals when a union is satisfied with a landlord. Increased tenant satisfaction generally leads to higher retention rates and may even help to increase rents.

Tenant unions are generally protected by law. It can violate federal, state, and local laws to try to prevent tenants from unionizing. Evicting tenants because they unionize is a form of retaliation, which violates a renters rights.

In some situations, tenants try to form unions when they are having problems with their landlord. If you solve those problems quickly, and to their satisfaction, tenants may abandon their efforts.

If you have a lawful reason to evict a tenant that is in a union, or is forming or joining one, you may want to carefully document your reasons. Also, you may want to talk to a lawyer to make sure you are not walking into a costly retaliation claim.

Landlords typically need to avoid any actions that may be considered retaliation. Retaliation is when you take an action against a tenant because of their participation in a union. This might include things like:

  • Charging higher rents.
  • Removing use of common areas or amenities.
  • Refusing to perform maintenance or repairs.
  • Not offering discounts you normally would offer.
  • Declining to renew leases.
  • Screening new tenants based on union membership.

Laws vary by state, so it is a good idea to discuss any actions you plan to take with a lawyer.

Will tenant unions become a trend?

Tenant unions are already becoming a trend. Tenant unions, rent control, and other renter-friendly measures have become increasingly popular over the last few years.

Just like with labor unions, different geographical areas may be more supportive of the idea of tenant unions, and individual tenants may also have different opinions on them. No matter where you are or what size property you have, tenant unions are definitely something that may affect your property.

If you have more questions about how to interact with a tenant union, or your rights and responsibilities as a landlord if your tenants unionize, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


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