10/27 Item 25 - Tenant Right to Organize

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Jose Chito Vela
Posts: 42
Joined: Fri Feb 11, 2022 8:16 am

10/27 Item 25 - Tenant Right to Organize

Post by Jose Chito Vela »

Colleagues,

As you know, the City Council previously initiated the drafting of an ordinance to protect the rights of tenants to organize and participate in tenant organizations, empowering tenants to better advocate for themselves and to improve the efficacy and efficiency of communications. Approval of the ordinance has been on the agenda for our last few meetings, but we decided as a Council to postpone consideration at the behest of tenant and landlord stakeholders working towards an agreement.

I am very excited to report that after a rigorous and collaborative process, the stakeholders have produced a consensus draft. This draft reflects input from all participants; every party agreed to make concessions. While no compromise is perfect, we believe the stakeholder process yielded an ordinance that is balanced, clear, and effectively achieves the intended goal of protecting legitimate organizing activity while minimizing undesired consequences and preserving the legal rights of all parties. We understand that not every stakeholder will give the consensus draft its full-throated endorsement, but our collaboration has produced better policy that everyone feels they can live with.

While it’s evident I see housing as the most critical challenge facing our city today and that I believe in bold action to increase supply and lower barriers and costs, the benefits of progress are not always shared equally. Real change is a long, complex process, and housing reforms take time to yield results. Even with positive change, many are left behind or fall through the cracks. Tenants, despite comprising a majority of Austin residents, have little leverage in a market of skyrocketing prices and record growth. Without tools such as tenant organizing to bring together and enhance tenant voices, individual tenants are in poor bargaining positions and are more easily isolated, silenced, or ignored.

By protecting the right to organize, tenants can combine efforts and act in a coordinated, united way. This gives tenants more agency and brings more balance to negotiations. If we look at recent examples, the benefits are clear. For example, at one property being redeveloped, tenants were able to organize and bargain as a unit, obtaining significant concessions and benefits for relocation, while at others, an owner took multiple actions to threaten, intimidate, and interfere with organizing, displacing tenants and engaging in disruptive, unpermitted construction with seeming impunity. We have a Repeat Offender program for properties with multiple and persistent Code violations, but the city’s resources and enforcement tools are limited; a robust tenant organization could achieve results more effectively. Landlords also benefit from a unified, single point of engagement, reducing the effort and frustration of dealing with multiple, uncoordinated complaints and conflicting tenant viewpoints; they can also be an effective partner in addressing problematic member conduct and maintaining civility in discussions. While tenants may change frequently, organizers and landlords can develop longer term and more collegial relationships through repeated interaction.

The proposed ordinance achieves its goals by defining a tenant right to organize, such as the right to speak and share materials with other tenants about participating in an organization, hold meetings in areas generally available to tenants for such use, and advocate for tenants on issues such as community policies. It prohibits landlord interference with these rights, such as singling out certain tenants for cutting off services or eviction for exercising their protected right to organize and makes intentional acts of interference a Class C misdemeanor criminal offense.

There are some misconceptions about the ordinance that I want to clarify as well. The proposed ordinance is a criminal law, which means that city prosecutors, not individual tenants, decide whether to investigate and prosecute a case. It also means that each element of the offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, including that the landlord acted intentionally. A municipal judge would most likely hear the case, and the only punishment permitted is up to a $500 fine. The landlord-tenant relationship itself is governed by civil laws such as the Texas Property Code and contract law. This ordinance is not intended and does not protect tenants or organizers if they breach their leases, including community rules applicable to everyone, or break the law. It provides a different kind of protection from retaliation, which is a civil law that lets tenants sue for money, but only applies in the case of certain types of landlord conduct (e.g., it does not cover calling the police, a common tactic used to intimidate tenants and organizers) and does not cover invited organizer guests, organizations, and many organizing activities. Legal disputes regarding rent, evictions, and retaliation are heard by Justices of the Peace and governed by civil law; the proposed ordinance does not give municipal judges the power to decide possession, enjoin evictions, or award damages. By creating a criminal ordinance, we essentially empower the city to provide oversight, which can be extremely difficult for individual tenants to do on their own consistently, but with a high standard of proof, an intent requirement, and respecting the landlord-tenant relationship, we incentivize against the most egregious behavior, while the vast majority of landlords will experience no change.

As the stakeholder draft is a substantial departure from the previously posted drafts, I will be making a motion to approve the stakeholder version as a substitute ordinance. The full text is linked below:
Jose Chito Vela
Posts: 42
Joined: Fri Feb 11, 2022 8:16 am

Re: 10/27 Item 25 - Tenant Right to Organize

Post by Jose Chito Vela »

Colleagues, I apologize - we had some technical difficulties, and while trying to get the link to work, prematurely posted. Hopefully, this link will appear correctly:

http://assets.austintexas.gov/austincou ... 101642.pdf

Saludos,

Chito
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