The Pittsburgh Tenants Union has been "a long time coming," said Ronell Guy, executive director of The Northside Coalition for Fair Housing. The resident-focused community development organization is spearheading efforts to create a city-wide tenants union.
“For the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to organize residents to stand up and have a voice in this city. The city of Pittsburgh is in a complete housing crisis,” she said, adding that the wait for affordable housing units can be years-long.
The offices of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing are only a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh. There, across the Allegheny River, rental rates are booming for offices and apartments alike. Part of what's driving record asking prices for apartments — In Pittsburgh as in many other places in the United States — is basic economics: high demand and low supply.
There haven’t been this many renters in the marketplace since the 1960’s, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found in a 2015 study. And while construction of multi-family units throughout the U.S. is on a tear, the cost of those apartments remains out of reach for low- and moderate-income families. Fully half of renters nationwide make less than $34,000, and just 10 percent of new units are accessible to them.
Too many people have fewer options, said Guy.
“It’s about wages, it’s about poverty, but unless they let us start cutting down trees, building houses in the park...we can do that...but people have to have somewhere to go.”
The Pittsburgh Tenants Union will act as an umbrella organization, advocating for individuals — with safety concerns such as mold — as well as smaller tenants unions. Broadly, the organization will educate people about their rights, as well as actions they can take to address issues with landlords.
“We want to really build power in these local properties and then come together,” said Guy.
One of the biggest challenges is letting people know they have protected rights when it comes to housing, said Reggie Good, the coalition's campaign director. It’s especially important when developers want to create projects in traditionally marginalized neighborhoods, he said.
“A lot of our residents are older, a lot of our residents are young, a lot of our people don’t understand the terms that’s used when [developers] come in, until they’re living out on the street or on somebody’s couch.”
Allentown Tenant Association vice president Ken Heffentrager echoed Good: “The main thing is educating renters of their rights, they don’t seem to think they have a stake." The Allentown organization was created in 2011. Good said renters' lack of empowerment might have something to do with semantics. In discussions about renters, the word transient gets tossed around a lot. But it’s taken on an odd cast, Heffentrager said.
“[Renters] seem to think it’s an insult. We’ve actually really fought hard to try to get people to stop saying the word transient. We need renters to realize they are part of the city. A big part of the city."
In Pittsburgh, the bottom line is to make sure all city residents have safe, healthy housing, said Guy. But there’s an added benefit for communities.
"We want to work to help tenants control their property, we get the properties into the hands of people that want them to thrive...which stabilizes neighborhoods."
The Pittsburgh Tenants Union has 100 new members according to Guy. They are in the process of identifying specific goals for the organization, as well as beginning leadership development. In Philadelphia, renters can daily attend a free tenants rights workshop at the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN). The advocacy group also offers individual counseling and organizing help.