Tenants or Renters?

Since I started thinking and writing about this idea I generally been using the word tenant to describe the people we will aim to organise.

Tenant is the legally defined term and is used by existing organisations in other cities (the Tenants Protection Association in Auckland and Christchurch, the Manawatu Tenants Union in Palmerston North) and of course the Tenancy Tribunal, so naturally I fell into using it too.

A few days ago someone who has been thinking longer and deeper about renting in New Zealand suggested I consider renter instead. My initial thought was of the baggage that term carries with it thanks to the TV show Renters, but on further reflection I think there is a case for using renter over tenant.

First, many of the people we would like to recruit and organise are not the formal “tenant” of the property. Nevertheless they will be paying rent and even if they don’t immediately identify with renter they sure as hell know they are paying rent so there is an association there. If someone is not familiar with the term tenant (which is somewhat technical and legal in nature), or if their renting situation is not legally a tenancy – such as boarders and other “grey-market” renters – the term renter should offer a sense that this thing if for them to.

Second, I feel that the word renter is more active and feels like something that common cause could be built around. In my head it feel analogous to worker, whereas tenant feels like it reflects a passive contractual relationship, more akin to employee in a workplace setting. This will help us express the need to focus on campaigning for wider change, rather than focussing on advocacy services for individual members.

This may be a somewhat trivial matter but I do think that language matters as organising is fundamentally about communicating. We need to choose our words wisely.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

What does three years in a student flat tell you about renting? Not much.

A question: how many of the politicians, civil servants, journalists and academics that discuss and debate housing are renters?

Whether sympathetic or otherwise, the reality is that few of the people involved in the public discourse around rentals have substantial experience of it.

Of course most politicians will have a nostalgic experience of a #characterbuilding experience in a drafty old flat, feeling that a couple of cold winters under three duvets offers them an insight into the reality of renting.

But this actually serves to reinforce the idea that renting is a temporary experience. For hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders renting is not temporary. It is living. The “dream” of home-ownership is just that, a dream.

For people without the means to pull together a deposit and the stability of income to commit to a mortgage their path to a securing a healthy, safe and affordable home must be through renting.

And yet we have nothing in place, legally or otherwise, that can deliver this.

We need organisations that work towards making this happen, that is what I want to get going. So that renters speak for themselves on these issues and so it becomes harder and harder for politicians to wax lyrical about their student days in Aro Street.

Renting is not a temporary or transitionary circumstance, especially in a distorted housing market like Wellington. We need to hear more renters in the public discourse because at the moment all the solutions proposed to the housing crisis only aim to address the supply of housing for homeownership and thus ignore one third of all households in our country.

Photo credit: Nick Thompson via Flickr.

First thoughts on an organising approach

Building a new tenants’ union from scratch is a daunting task. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking a lot about what the organisation might be, in particular what it’s approach and values are, but I keep coming back to a big unanswered question: How do I get it started? What is our organising strategy?

In recent conversations a few ideas have come up, far from fully formed. to some extent this is a bit premature but I’m very keen to hear what people think about both the principle and the practicality of this so I’m putting it out there:

1. “Values” based recruitment

Initially, I’m not sure that the a tenants’ union operated completely by volunteer activists can make many grandiose promises to prospective members about the benefits of membership. I don’t think we will be able to promise to resolve everyone’s problem with their landlord or ensure every home is fixed up or rent reduced. As a consequence I think this kind of transaction recruitment strategy will fail.

Instead, I think that we need to be able to clearly and compellingly express the values and purpose of the union, alongside the strength that collectivism brings.

If people join because they believe in the purpose they are more likely to contribute back to the union and recruit others, less likely to expect miracles for stretched activists and, I think, more likely to see membership as a commitment that in the longer term forms part of their identity.

2. Campaigning from the outset

Campaigns are the expression of the unions values and purpose as well as it’s key mechanism for change. Without campaigns we will be stuck trying to explain the union only in terms of its values, which is often a exercise in abstraction and empty platitudes (like this blog).

For those who we recruit because they are interested in or share the purpose of the union we need to give then the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. By connecting campaigning activity back to our values we can express to members and potential members exactly what type of change we want to see.

The approach I imagine is similar to that undertaken by the living wage campaign which unites people around a specific demand but ensures that it is supported by common values:

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows in New Zealand and poverty increases, more and more New Zealanders don’t get paid enough to meet their needs, enjoy their lives and participate in society.

3. Establishing a presence in the community

Being visible and available to talk to interested people is going to be very important in early recruiting. This will likely mean that with limited resources we will want to target our efforts on particular suburbs or areas with Wellington, probably those with high concentrations of rentals and families.

Person to person contact will be important so attendance/presence at regular events like markets and contact with people through pre-existing community networks like churches and schools will be a good place to start.

Alongside this, we should create a distinctive “brand” for our activities, activists and supporters (t-shirts, badges, shop signs etc.) so as the union establishes itself in the community this becomes more and more visible.

4. Proactive organising

One possible organising approach would be to tackle recruitment on a street by street basis. Assuming (big assumption) that we have a a small core group of activists, an activist (or maybe a pair) could be assigned a street to organise.

Ideally this would be the street on which they live as service of their own community would help with both initial conversations and in the longer term. Having good data about which houses were rentals and would also help a lot.

In a sense these activists would be analogous to shop stewards or delegates: providing a (very) local point of contact, visibility and intelligence for the union and coordinating members to support campaigns and other activities.

If this kind of structure gets established then it would need to be supported by good training and support and succession planning to ensure that as activists inevitably move around the city those movements can be used as an opportunity to establish or strengthen membership in other areas.

As always, very keen to hear from anyone who wants to talk, get involved or has ideas or experience to share.

Photo credit: Flimin via Flickr.

Stuck between a “rock and an ocean”

Today’s Dominion Post has a grim story about the conditions in some private rentals in Cannons Creek:

Water running down walls and gang members beating disgruntled tenants are just a few of the perils of private rentals in Cannons Creek.

Bill Hiku who is involved in the local residents and ratepayers’ association offers a particularly telling insight into how landlords get away with offering up these sub-standard conditions.


“These people can’t get into Housing New Zealand homes. They have nowhere else to live. It is a rock and a hard place.


“It becomes almost an insurmountable mountain. It’s this fear of making waves and getting kicked out.”

And intimidation:

He even knew of a landlord who used a gang member to keep his tenants in line.

“The gang member’s role was pretty much to make sure everyone behaved and, if they didn’t, he would intimidate them.”

When one tenant complained about some work that needed to be done, the reply was a bashing at his front door.

The landlord/tenant relationship is has within it an inherent power imbalance.

For some this power imbalance has trivial consequences, a door handle that doesn’t get fixed or a lawn goes unmowed, but for those without the resources – especially financial – there is little to no meaningful “choice” in housing and under these circumstances landlords can be at their most exploitive.

There is power in unity and community and this power imbalance can be countered by collective organising and action. Communities can stand up to these landlords and their thugs but it is a long hard road to build a movement with the scale and capacity to reverse the decades of prejudice and victim blaming that permeates our culture.

If you want some evidence on that last point I refer you to some of the comments on the stuff.co.nz version of the article, though I would never recommend reading those.

Does design have a conscience?

To most people “design” is analogous to “making things pretty” but good design is really about finding elegant solutions to complex problems. It then follows that if design solves problems then it can do good and – equally – when practiced badly it can do harm.

This is the central argument in Mike Monteiro’s talk from Webstock last year. If you’re a designer, work on things that involve design, or are interested in how professional ethics get bashed out in a new field find the 48 minutes to watch:

We are mired in a design culture that eight doesn’t understand its responsibility to the world we live in. Or worse, it doesn’t care.

— Mike Monteiro in How Designers Destroyed the World.

He makes a very strong case that designers need to take far greater responsibility for “what they put into the world”. In particular it’s just not good enough to say “fuck it” when the going gets tough.

Towards the end of the talk Monteiro makes explicit the political issues that inform his personal and professional ethics. They are far from radical in and of themselves but they did make me wonder: can digital design have any political imperative in the 21st century? Does it have a conscience?

The 19th and 20th centuries are marked by art, design and architectural movements that sought to harness and direct their practice for the good of humanity.

Is digital design in the 21st century similarly capable of acting for real change or has “changing the world” now just be relegated to another meaningless platitude wedged into Silicon Valley mission statements?

Handling case work

If a tenants’ union is to get off the ground it will need a strategy – from the outset – on how it handles casework.

It’s clear that many potential members might reach out to the union and/or join to get specific help with a problem they are having with their landlord, property or property manager. But if the tenants’ union is to bring about meaningful change for tenants its effort and energy need to be focused on recruitment, campaigning and organising.

Casework can be very draining on resources, both in terms of time and emotionally and a clear plan needs to be in place as to how individual cases can be used to recruit, empower local activists and build the capacity of the union to take action.

People I’ve talked to so far have suggested a number of ways this could be handled:


Regular clinics could be established. These could be at a publicised time and location and inquiries outside these times could be directed to them. This could help keep the amount of work manageable, especially if referrals and resources (see below) are employed well. These could be run by volunteers/activists with a particular interest in doing casework.

One obvious question about this approach would be how often should they be held? What if a member has an urgent issue or can’t make it to a clinic?

Train activists

An organising union should always be seeking to develop its activists so they can provide help and support to their networks. Good training can go a long way to giving activists the tool and confidence they need, especially when it’s supported by experience.

The strength of this approach is it should reinforce local organisation and networks over time.

Resources for self-empowerment

A bank of practical resources could be developed. These could be designed to empower members to resolve matters for themselves. For example, model letters, checklists, model tenancy agreements (with better than the legal minimums) and step-by-step guides to resolving common issues.

Case studies

The right piece of casework could be taken on as a case study to attempt to establish a new formal or informal precedent. as it stands less than 10% of cases brought to the Tenancy Tribunal are brought by tenants and where tenants win it is rarely publicised or reported in the media. In contrast, even small wins in Employment Court are heavily publicised by trade unions and you’d hope this makes other employers think twice before repeating those actions.

I’m sure there are many other options to consider, get in touch and I’ll trade you a coffee for your ideas.

Photo credit: Mark Crossfield via Flickr.

The right to secure occupancy

In her explanation of the Government’s obligations for housing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Elinor Chisolm explains what the right to secure occupancy should mean:

Everyone needs not just a house, but a home, regardless of whether they want or can afford to buy one. We need to adjust our laws so that a tenant, if they want to, can make a home, and establish relationships with their neighbours, their local school, a doctor. They can settle in, for 6 months, for a year, for many years, and feel at home, relieved from the anxiety of the threat of upheaval when the landlord arbitrarily gives a 90 or 45 day notice.

For many tenants – especially those in low-paid casual work or on benefits – the insecurity of their housing is not just related to the whether their landlords exert their “right” to end the tenancy but also to their ability to make their rent when pressure comes on their finances. Under such circumstances parents have often have little choice but to move.

Education unions and the Child Poverty Action Group have a particular concern about the effect that constantly moving around has on education:

“We must address the causes of [educational] transience by introducing housing policies that actively address the shortage of secure, affordable housing in areas where low-income families live.”

A tenants’ union could work with schools and other community institutions to tackle these issues in communities. For example, it could campaign to extend tenancy periods (or notice periods) for families with school age children so no family was required to move during the school year and could support tenants who are struggling with their rent without them having to resort to either abandoning their home or surcumbing to loansharks – both legal and illegal.

“Sticking together gives you hope that things can be different”

Focus E15 mothers are a group of young mothers who were evicted from a hostel they lived in. The hostel was a place of shelter for women facing homelessness and domestic violence. Their response to this eviction and the accompanying attempts by social service to disperse them across the country was to organise.

What strikes me about the actions of these brave women and their supporters, is that organising and campaigning of this nature is also an exercise in community building. And what better way to (re-)build communities than though campaigning on housing?

Finding the confidence to stand up for yourself and those around you is not easy but when you do you give others the confidence to do the same. Solidarity and action can be infectious and can strengthen a community to the point where it can begin to find it’s own solution to problems as well as become impossible for those with the power to ignore.

What is to be done?

Like many others, I was struck by the election result last month. As I watched the results come in I was not surprised by the left’s heavy defeat (depressing as that was) but I was more affected by how many of my friends on Facebook and elsewhere were lamenting the result and fact that the issues that they care about would now suffer another three years of inaction. Strongest amongst these statements was a sentiment of disconnect, comments like “I don’t even know you New Zealand” were common.

I get this, but I also think that we cannot wait for or expect our political parties or politicians to make any change happen for us. On election night I expressed it like this:

Only thing I have to say is that progressive change is achieved despite the political (-tician) class, not because of it. Pick something you hoped tonight might change and go and do your best to change it.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the subsequent weeks about what I hoped the election might change and how I might go about fighting to change it (after all this post was mostly a challenge to myself).

Like many, I am appalled by the reality of the poverty that a significant number of New Zealanders live in. I don’t think that charity can solve those problems, however noble the effort. Instead, I believe the left as a whole need to find new and innovative ways to reach out to and organise people to strengthen their own communities and fight for what they need to live happy, safe and fullfilling lives.

Of course many unions and other organisations are working very hard on this already, but organising those who are suffering most in our neo-liberal experiment of a society has it’s own sets of challenges. Work is casualised, fragmentised and contracted out and even where unions are able to make gains the transience and precarious nature of the work means union membership and organisation is a constant battle against entrophy.

And so my mind turned to considering whether there were other areas where complementary organising effort could reach out to and organise those that unions find hardest to reach. I arrived at housing and in particular that hundreds of thousands of people who will be life-long tenants.

Rent is usually a household’s single biggest expense and the failures of the market to provide healthy, warm and safe houses is already well documented.

So, my far from fully formed idea is this: a Wellington tenant’s union (working title) that organises tenants to fight for an affordable, safe and stable home for everyone.

I’m talking to anyone who’ll listen about this at the moment so get in touch if you’d like me to buy you a coffee.

Politics & Design. Aotearoa.