An Oakland tenant union rises in the pandemic

Christina sits on the steps of her building wearing a mask.
Christina, a member of the Alice Street-Ivy Hill Tenant Union, poses for a photo outside of her apartment building. (Amir Aziz/The Oaklandside)

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was already decimating Christina’s source of income. An events coordinator in her early 50s, she worried about not being able to pay the rent on her apartment near Lake Merritt. Oakland and Alameda County would soon pass eviction moratoriums, but it was unclear to Christina at the time if the government would step in to help people like her. 

But Christina knew she had support from one group: her neighbors.

Less than a year earlier, Christina (who asked that we only use her first name, out of concern that this story could jeopardize her ability to rent housing in the future) and about 10 other tenants who lived in the same apartment complex on Alice Street had banded together after feeling their landlord was overcharging them for heating. A hearing officer from Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program agreed; they ordered the landlord to reimburse some of the tenants, and stop overcharging in the future. Out of that fight, Alice Tenant Union was born.

When the pandemic started, the union members began organizing again—only this time, it was to prevent possibly being displaced from their homes. The idea of a rent strike to ease the burden of accumulating debt was discussed early on. Some of the tenants, like Christina, had lost income and were facing serious financial challenges. Others saw the strike as a way to show solidarity with their neighbors. Some also worried that the landlord might pressure them into signing repayment agreements for missed rent that wouldn’t be in their best interest.

Their efforts—which would include “phone zaps,” artwork, rallies, and more—are part of a national trend. While tenant associations have existed for decades, they’ve grown by the hundreds during the pandemic amid widespread income loss and mounting housing insecurity. More and more, tenants in cities across the country—and not only in places like the Bay Area and New York where tenants unions have traditionally been strongest—are organizing and, in many cases, winning concessions from landlords. In Kansas City, Missouri, tenant union leaders recently told the Wall Street Journal that their ranks have tripled in size since the start of the pandemic, and their direct actions have helped prevent over 900 evictions. Last month the San Francisco Board of Supervisors required landlords to recognize established tenant unions and allow tenant organizing on their properties.  

The Oaklandside—the publication in which this article originally appeared—spoke with members of the Ivy Hill-Alice Street Tenant Union to understand how it came to exist and ultimately win significant concessions for renters at eight apartment buildings in Oakland. 

We also sought interviews with the landlord and property manager for these buildings to learn about how the pandemic and tenant organizing efforts affected them, but they declined to speak on the record for this story.

Christina and other renters who participated in the organizing campaign say the deal was a significant win and an example of what tenants can accomplish together.

“Now we want to inspire other tenants to organize,” she said. “It’s possible. You just have to be patient and work with your neighbors.”

‘The power of collective bargaining’

At first, Christina’s confidence in the union wasn’t as strong as she would have liked. Its numbers were small, and when she and other members reached out to neighbors in the building, only about a dozen people occupying eight of the complex’s 38 units were willing to consider a rent strike. But a few months later, Christina saw something that changed her outlook entirely.

A group of people living in two apartment complexes across the lake on Cleveland Street had posted a flier outside the Alice Street complex, announcing they’d just formed the “Ivy Hill Tenant Union,” and that several dozen members were collectively withholding rent. 

Unaware that tenants at Alice Street had already organized, members of the Ivy Hill union were reaching out because they’d discovered that the owners of their building also owned the Alice Street apartments.

“It was such a relief,” Christina said. “It’s like these people were living in a parallel universe while having the same struggle and doing the same thing.”

On their fliers and other materials, the Ivy Hill Tenant Union argued that “no one should have to worry about the security of their housing during this crisis.” They sought to use “the power of collective bargaining” to seek rent relief.

The two groups soon met and agreed to merge, forming the Ivy Hill-Alice Tenant Union and eventually growing to more than 60 members.

Thirteen months later, in April 2021, after an estimated $650,000 of withheld rent, collective phone campaigns, and hoursof negotiations, a deal was struck between the union and the investment group that owns Christina’s apartment building and seven others. Tenants would receive a 30% reduction in all back-rent owed, and an additional 10% rent reduction from April through December 2020.

A coalition of buildings

Dawn looks outside the window of her building wearing a mask.
Dawn Arens looks outside of a window of her apartment building. Credit: (Amir Aziz/The Oaklandside)

Like Christina, Dawn Arens is also in her early 50s and was facing financial difficulties during the early days of the pandemic. To pay her bills she relied on teaching French and Spanish, occasional pet and house-sitting gigs, and income from co-owning a small hospitality business. Since two of her income sources relied on people traveling, which wasn’t happening much, her income took a big hit. But she hadn’t lost her teaching job, so she didn’t qualify for unemployment. 

“My budget had changed radically due to the pandemic,” said Arens, who chose to use her full name for this story. “I was worried about being able to pay rent.”

Arens also found out about the Ivy Hill Tenant Union through a flier posted on her building in Cleveland Heights, a few blocks from the larger complexes where the Ivy Hill union had started. Her complex, too, shared the same landlord. By talking with members of the union, Arens discovered new information that changed her opinion about the property owners.

Over the years, Arens had developed the impression that the building was family-owned and not turning a big profit. As a result, she “let a lot of things slide,” such as maintenance and repair requests that weren’t completed adequately or on time. She was also impressed that her landlord, James Lewis, would sometimes show up to the building to check in, a signal to Arens that he cared. Occasionally, he’d even do small repairs himself. The combination of disorganization and a personal touch led her to believe Lewis ran a small mom-and-pop operation.

That’s why Arens was shocked when the tenant union told her that her landlord actually owned more than 30 buildings, mostly in Oakland and the East Bay. The union said they discovered this by researching property records available through sources like PropertyRadar, Corporation Wiki, and Google searches, and looking up LLCs on California’s Secretary of State Website. (The Oaklandside was able to confirm that Lewis owns or co-owns over 20 other buildings either directly, or through a related company or trust.)

“When I found out how many properties the landlord had, I was really upset,” Arens said. “It indicated to me he could be doing a much better job of keeping up these places.”

Lewis did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Joseph Hickingbotham, a manager for Ivy Hill Properties, confirmed receipt of our emails seeking an interview and requested we send questions. We did, but Hickingbotham never responded to our follow-ups.

On April 8, 2020, Arens received an email from Lewis and his property management team that addressed COVID-19 related issues.

“If you have any concerns paying your rent due to a job loss or substantial loss of income,” the email read, “please reach out to us directly and we can confidentially discuss your personal situation.”

“That made me really mad,” Arens said of the email. She knew by then that her landlord was aware that tenants in more than one building were organizing, and to her, the note suggested he “didn’t want people talking to each other.”

Talking and working with her neighbors was exactly what she thought was necessary. But at first, Arens had her doubts about the union. A substantial majority of its members were white and Arens, who is Black, suspected many would have generational wealth to fall back on—something she didn’t have—and that she’d be taking on a greater level of risk.

“I was skeptical at first because I didn’t want to get involved with something that was half-assed,” she said. “I was worried about getting involved with people whose parents were doctors or lawyers and then my Black ass is gonna be out on the street.”

Despite her doubts, Arens reached out to the union and connected with a member who addressed her concerns. She left that discussion feeling the union was “very organized.” She began withholding her rent, attending bi-weekly meetings over Zoom, and working to get others in her building involved. Eventually, three of the eight units in her building joined the rent strike.

‘Phone zaps,’ artwork, and rallies

Three red and black posters that say "I am for the rent strike!"' "tenants on rent strike!"; and "no rent debt we can't afford it!"
Posters created by the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils promoting the Ivy Hill Tenants (Credit: courtesy Bay Area TANC)

Engaging in a rent strike wasn’t something that the tenant union rushed into. In March 2020, members who lived in one of the Cleveland Street buildings emailed their landlord asking for a rent reduction. 

According to emails the tenants shared with The Oaklandside, Lewis and Ivy Hill Properties responded with an offer that included 20% off rent for April and May, but only if tenants could pay the remaining 80% of rent on time.They offered a 10% rent discount for April and May to those who could pay half of the remaining rent on the first of the month and the other half on the 15th. Those who could not pay any rent on time would receive no discount.

Union members rejected the offer, in part because they felt it was unfair to those who needed rent relief the most. In a collective email response to Lewis and the property management company, they compared the staggered system to a “regressive tax,” and wrote, “Those with the most money get the biggest discount, and those with the least pay the most.” 

Lewis and Ivy Hill Properties responded by offering a bigger discount on unpaid rent—25% off for April and May. But they only made that offer to one of the two Cleveland Street buildings, so the tenants rejected it again. They also felt it wouldn’t come close to addressing their financial needs, as they suspected the pandemic would last much longer than two months. 

In the midst of these negotiations, on March 27, 2020, Oakland’s City Council enacted an eviction moratorium, still in effect, which bans landlords from evicting tenants during the pandemic for non-payment of rent.

With the moratorium in place, the union began collectively withholding rent payments, knowing they couldn’t be kicked out of their homes. Casey, a union member who later became the group’s chief negotiator, said that at this time, the landlord and property management company stopped discussing rent relief with the group. They also stopped offering any deals in writing and started discussing rent relief only with individuals on the phone.

Casey also asked The Oaklandside to only use her first name in this article because, due to her central organizing role in the union, she fears that if she tries to rent elsewhere in the future, a new potential landlord could find her in an online search and refuse to rent to her.

According to Casey, one reason Lewis and Ivy Hill Properties said they didn’t want to collectively negotiate with the tenant union was that the different buildings they own have different investors, and they would have had to include these co-owners in discussions. Negotiating a deal amenable to all parties, they told Casey, would be “logistically impossible.”

“Over time, that turned out not to be the case,” said Casey. “We just needed to make the alternative worse than the work of figuring out how to make it happen.”

On a day in July 2020, unionized tenants called the Ivy Hill Property management offices in an organized fashion, asking them to bargain with the union. Most of them left voicemail messages until the mailboxes were entirely filled up.

“It felt kind of thrilling in a way,” said Arens about the call-in campaign. “You had the faith that you weren’t going to get targeted because it wasn’t just you doing it. The community was doing it.”

In August 2020, Ivy Hill-Alice Tenant Union conducted a similar “phone zap,” this time also calling Lewis and two of his business associates’ private cell phone numbers. The phone zap lasted three days and involved members of Bay Area Tenants and Neighborhood Councils, also known as Bay Area TANC, an Oakland-based tenant union with over 500 members that formed in 2018 and works to support smaller tenant unions in the Bay Area, as well as other tenant organizing efforts.

“People in Ivy Hill-Alice Tenant Union have held roles and supported our organization,”  said TANC’s media coordinator, E Conner“TANC members, in solidarity, have supported their organizing. It’s been a very reciprocal relationship.”

TANC helped organize several barbecues for the union, allowing members to meet in an informal setting. And in September 2020, TANC organized the “Life Over Rent Rally,” where about 175 tenants came together outside of the René C. Davidson Courthouse to demand rent cancellation during the pandemic. Casey, along with fellow Ivy Hill-Alice Tenants Union member Kieryn Darkwater, spoke at the event. TANC also showed support by making artwork, such as posters, that union members put up in their apartment windows to signal they were on rent strike. Casey called the red and black posters “gorgeous” and said they served as “a huge visual call to action.”

Feelings of anxiety

For Arens, the process of withholding rent was intense and brought up complex feelings.

“At first I was embarrassed that I wasn’t paying my rent,” she said. “Our system depends on this idea that we must pay for things and there’s some kind of shame if we’re not.”

Some conversations she had with acquaintances, who were surprised and expressed harsh judgments at her choice not to pay rent, reinforced the shame. In time, Arens said, shame morphed into pride at engaging in collective action that helped not just herself, but also her neighbors.

“It was interesting to process how much we’re indoctrinated into doing the thing that keeps the system going,” she said.

For many union members, withholding rent was stressful.Eventually, some union members qualified for rent reimbursement through government programs, but it was hard to know if their landlord would cooperate with them to get paid back.Others, like Arens, didn’t qualify for the programs. As the strike stretched on and their rent debt increased, so did the collective anxiety.

But their landlord’s income was likely also taking a big hit. By December of 2020, the rent strike was showing no sign of slowing down. According to the tenant union members, Lewis and Hickingbotham began negotiating over the phone about a possible deal.

The ‘poker game’ of negotiations

According to Casey,starting in December, she and five other renters studied negotiation techniques by reading books and watching videos, including using a MasterClass course from former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Members of the group pretended to be Lewis or Hickingbotham as they role-played negotiations.

While the phone zaps were a show of power, the group wanted to approach the negotiations in a less confrontational way. Much of their negotiation study centered around inspiring empathy and avoiding making people angry.

Casey said the process was similar to a poker game. Lewis and Hickingbotham probably didn’t know what she had in her hand, since it’s likely union members weren’t the only people not paying rent in the buildings, and their landlord couldn’t know who was in the union and who wasn’t.

Casey said she used the nebulous size of the union as a tool. During negotiations, she never disclosed exactly how many people were involved in the rent strike. Other times, she strategically revealed information to catch the landlord and Hickingbotham off guard.

“Sometimes just sharing that I was in contact with someone from a building they didn’t know was involved seemed to rattle them,” she said. “They were probably thinking of all the other tenants we might still reach out to and how much of a headache it would be for the tenant union, and the rent strike, to keep growing.”

The six-person tenant-negotiating team and Lewis and Hickingbotham, who were representing the companies and investors who owned the properties, finally came to a tentative deal in February 2021, according to interviews and records shared with The Oaklandside. But the tenant union had one more condition. They would agree to the deal only after it was made available to all of the renters in the buildings their landlord owned. 

After Lewis agreed, the union held a vote, and about 97% approved. As a result, even tenants who did not take part in the rent strike were able to take advantage of its boons. The Oaklandside spoke to one such tenant who said he moved into a Lewis-owned building late in the negotiation process, and never withheld any rent, but still took advantage of the 10% discount. He asked to not be named in this article, preferring not to rock the boat as a new tenant.

In addition to the rent reductions, the agreement included several other important provisions.

According to a copy of the agreement that the tenant union shared with The Oaklandside, Lewis and Ivy Hill Properties agreed to not retaliate against tenants who engaged in the rent strike and to provide positive references when and if they seek housing under a new landlord. They also agreed to cooperate with tenants in the process of securing government relief funds. Many tenants qualified for these funds, and the cooperation has ensured that those tenants don’t have to pay while Lewis and Ivy Hill Properties still receive the full back-rent.

In exchange, the landlord and Ivy Hill Properties received some concessions of their own. Tenants who qualified for state or local rent relief agreed to apply for that assistance. For those who didn’t qualify, they agreed to repay 70% of their back rent over a yearlong period, and at least $500 per month, starting immediately.

The rent strike is over, but the union lives on

Arens, who lives alone, said that the union and the rent strike helped her handle some of the social and emotional difficulties of the pandemic. Collective organizing provided much-needed social interaction. She saw the same people in bi-weekly meetings and started going for outdoor walks with her neighbors, not just for organizing purposes, but to get to know them better. 

While the rent strike has ended, the tenant union lives on. Tenants at Alice Street have been organizing group projects at their complex, including a garden. They’re also trying to secure some funding from their landlord to fix up a courtyard area, which the tenants share. While fun, these projects are also strategic.

“A common problem tenant unions face is that tenancy can be temporary,” said Casey. “With these projects, we want to encourage members to stay and build community.”

Tenants are also looking for ways to make their collective living space better. In mid-November, union members gathered for an event called “Wine and Whine” where they drank wine and filed building maintenance requests.Casey and Arens said some of the issues people were writing about could pose dangers, such as stairs built at unsafe angles, and possible mold or asbestos.

Alice Street tenants have also been teaching others about what they’ve learned. In December and January, they hosted “How to Build a Tenant Union” workshops encouraging people to “stop by whether you are a new or seasoned organizer to learn or share your experiences.” Tenants at Alice and Ivy streets are also staying connected. Recently, they came together for an outdoor potluck.

In an effort to thrive in safe and stable housing, The Ivy Hill-Alice Tenant Union continues to organize.

“We still have a big battle ahead,” said Casey.

This article originally appeared in The Oaklandside.

Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.