Unlike the long legal history of labor unions in this country, tenant unions are relatively underdeveloped and underutilized. For a state like Connecticut that has banned rent control for more than several decades, the CT DSA Housing Justice Project (HJP) initially leveraged it power with the promise of an otherwise organizing formation untested in this state. According to a recent podcast with an HJP leader, “there’s like one line in one law that says your landlord can’t evict you within six months of joining a tenants Union. It doesn’t say anything about what attendants union is it like that’s the only line in terms of like legal structure around tenant unions.” With this measely mention, the state has otherwise assumed that rental disputes could be addressed by local Fair Rent Commissions.

Accordingly, “any municipality has the authority to establish a fair rent commission for the city/town, by an act of the city/town legislative body. A fair rent commission has the authority to receive and investigate rent complaints, issue subpoenas, hold hearings, and order landlords to reduce rents for specific reasons.” Though tenants and community members recall a prior vibrant era of Fair Rent Commissions that would fine landlords and cease rent payments until repairs were made, these mechanisms have been forgotten, especially during the pandemic. From a class analysis, these Commissions give the landlord the upper-hand over tenants since landlords often have more resources to higher an attorney and can delay and call for continuance on hearings to run down the clock.  The Housing Justice Project successfully passed a Right to Counsel in the case of tenant evictions in 2021 using federal COVID-19 funds, but it would be preferable for tenants to have negotiating power before such notices arrive in their mailboxes.

It was not until April, 2022, that the Connecticut State Legislature voted to mandate Fair Rent Commissions be established for all municipalities with more than 25,000 residents. Now, with this state mandate that went into effect October 1st, 2022, the HJP had an angle to organize for power through renter unity. New Haven was the site of the first successful ordinance update to include and define how a tenant’s union can negotiate with its city’s Fair Rent Commissions:

TENANTS’ UNION SHALL MEAN AN ORGANIZATION WHOSE MEMBERSHIP IS COMPRISED OF THE TENANTS LIVING IN A HOUSING ACCOMMODATION CONTAINING TEN (10) OR MORE SEPARATE RENTAL UNITS SHARING COMMON OWNERSHIP AND LOCATED ON THE SAME PARCEL OR ADJOINING PARCELS OF LAND, AND THAT HAS BEEN CREATED BY AGREEMENT OF A MAJORITY OF THE TENANTS LISTED AS LESSEES WITHIN THE HOUSING ACCOMMODATION. SUCH ORGANIZATION MUST BE REGISTERED WITH THE COMMISSION TO PARTICIPATE IN ANY STUDIES, INVESTIGATIONS, AND HEARINGS. TENANTS LIVING IN AN OWNER-OCCUPIED HOUSING ACCOMMODATION MAY NOT ORGANIZE A TENANTS’ UNION.

Currently New Haven has at least two tenant unions forming through the HJP though none have yet pursued collective bargaining as allowed by the new ordinance. But the landscape in uneven. Not all cities with DSA activity even have established Fair Rent Commissions while in other cities there is bureaucratic misunderstandings about what kind of disputes tenants can raise with the Commission that needs to be corrected by dedicated HJP organizers. DSA organizers need to meet their city at whatever stage they are at in the process to build out an apparatus that is favorable to working class tenants.

In summary, the legal path forward towards wielding tenant unions as collective rental barganing units is only a few bricks long. It remains to be seen if tenants can expand New Haven ordinance to other cities and leverage the existing municipal structures in their favor against landlords or if other organizing tactics must be developed.