Beyond Tenants Rights: An Interview with Eastwood Tenants Union

By Com. Omega

For more than 20 years, the Albany Park neighborhood, located on Chicago’s northwest side, has been a site of struggle for workers and tenants against gentrification. In the early 2000’s, Albany Park began to see it’s first wave of gentrification, resulting in thousands of families being displaced. The 2008 housing crisis halted much of the condo construction, but families were still being pushed out due to foreclosures. In the 2010’s, there were massive buy ups of apartment buildings in the neighborhood, luxury developers evicting working class tenants to make way for a wealthier clientele. These evictions and the changing conditions were met with resistance by groups such as Centro Auntomo and the Autonomous Tenants Union. As the struggle ebbed and flowed, we are now faced with a new crisis in the struggle against gentrification and displacement on the heels of a global pandemic. As the eviction moratorium comes closer in site, developers are licking their chops ready to pounce on the opportunity, while the black and brown working class are further displaced from the city center. Rather than accepting the exploitation, tenants are joining the fight against raising rents and gentrification.

The Eastwoods Tenants Union is one of the newest tenant unions to form in the Albany Park neighborhood during this time of uncertainty. Over the last few weeks, the union has aggressively gone after the landlord class and have made some significant gains against a landlord who has historically let his buildings deteriorate. They have shown through practice how all tenants should be fighting not only to assert their rights, but to stay in their homes. The union’s formation is positioned in a particularly proletarian section of the neighborhood, blocks west of the gentrifier occupied areas near Kedzie. A militant union with a clear political vision to fight the landlords and keep rents low is essential to any movement struggling against gentrification.

I got a chance to sit down with one of the organizers, Nora, to discuss the union’s short term and long term goals, and how their union fits into a larger movement for tenants and workers.

Tell me about the Eastwoods Tenants Union, how did it start and why?

I’ve seen a clear shift in Albany Park over the last few years. Rents skyrocketing, new businesses catering towards a new and wealthier audience, and more and more working class people forced to move. My partner and I’s old apartment was recently sold to developers on the East end of Albany Park, and we had to leave because we weren’t able to afford to stay there. We moved further West but were lucky enough to remain in the neighborhood. However, despite finding a new apartment we knew when we moved in, we had to get organized if we wanted to stay.

It started simply by talking to our neighbors in the building. The best way to start a tenants union is building trust and community with your fellow tenants. We would discuss how long people have lived in the apartment, how they felt about Albany Park, and how their experience was living in the building and with the landlord. These conversations were had over a series of weeks, from the laundry room to cooking out together as neighbors.

It was immediately apparent that people had issues with the landlord. Rents were being raised every year, even during the pandemic. Repair orders were not being responded to. The building was not being maintained. One neighbor had excessive mold, leaks, and water damage and despite being long-term residents they started looking for new apartments out of concern for their health and safety. One thing that was also apparent was that black and brown tenants’ requests and concerns were repeatedly going unanswered while a white tenant was getting more consistent responses. It was clear tenants were being treated differently based on their race. After several weeks of having these conversations, we approached one neighbor family with the idea of forming a tenants’ union. We shared ways in which the tenants’ union would benefit us as tenants and provide a way to collectively fight the landlord.

Every family we talked to was extremely interested and motivated. We held our first meeting, established guidelines for our tenants union to follow and made an action plan. After announcing our union to our management company we set forward together to get our repair requests resolved. 

What have you all been able to accomplish so far?

Together we have submitted repair requests for both individual units and our building as well as negotiated refunds for services tenants have paid for but not received. By connecting to organizers who have experience in organizing tenant unions we were able to receive guidance on how to best handle repair requests that have gone unanswered and learn about our rights as renters in Chicago. 

Collectively and through our union email – we sent repair requests outlining in detail what repairs were needed, included photo documentation, referenced the RTLO (Renters, Tenants, and Landlord Ordinance) and had all tenants in the union sign all repair request letters. This showed our landlord the collective power the union has established, that we will have one another’s back, and that we knew our rights as renters. Within 24 hours of sending the first repair request letters nearly every tenant in our building had been contacted by maintenance to fix the issues listed. Within 2 weeks 10/12 issues we raised were fixed. Many of these issues had previously been reported to management and our requests ignored. Ongoing leaks, mold issues, and broken outlets were all fixed. In our second round of repair request letters we were able to get the two remaining issues addressed as well as a slew of other repairs fixed, with the maintenance person arriving less than 12 hours after sending that email. These two letter campaigns have been a major victory for our union and have served as a great starting point for the organizing that is yet to come.

Given the current movement in the neighborhood to fight back against gentrification and displacement, how does ETU fit into the larger political context?

Fighting gentrification starts by people building power amongst themselves. We know that keeping Albany Park affordable will not be solved by a handful of affordable housing units in new developments but only by keeping existing residents in their homes with fair and affordable rents. By tenants in my building coming together and pushing back against an exploitative landlord we are putting the power back in our hands. We pay rent, we deserve dignified and safe places to live and to be able to stay in our homes and community. Forming tenants union is one piece in a larger puzzle in preventing displacement and pushing back against gentrification. Seeing our repair requests be resolved so quickly after forming our union serves as an important reminder where the power lies and we must continue to use our strategy of collective power in keeping rents affordable for existing residents. A victory for one building can be a victory for the whole community but it is up to us to fight for one another – there is power in community and that’s exactly what we are looking to grow. 

What are the long term goals for ETU?

We want to set a new precedent that going forward repair requests are respected and handled within a timely manner. Throughout the history of our neighbors’ tenancy, the management company has gotten away with ignoring repair requests and that will no longer be tolerated. 

But even bigger than that we want to ensure that tenants who wish to stay in the building will not be priced out. Many discussions our tenants union has had have centered around rising rents in our own building and around the neighborhood.  We see the redevelopment of buildings, new businesses popping up that we can’t afford, and know the impact that it will eventually have on us. Year after year, the management company has arbitrarily raised rents and added new fees. Each fee varies amongst tenants and every single tenant is worried about the cost increases the following year will bring. We want to use our collective power to keep rents fair and to prevent any of us being priced out of our own homes. 

Lastly, we hope that by sharing our struggles and victories we can support other tenants in the neighborhood to get organized and show them we can fight back against gentrification to keep Albany Park for the people. 

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