Photo of a chalked message reading, “Rent Is Too High” on a black plywood construction wall. There are construction materials in front of the wall
Image credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Tara Raghuveer is the cofounder of KC Tenants—based in Kansas City, MO—and is the housing campaign director at People’s Action. From there, she directs the Homes Guarantee campaign. 

Launched in 2017, the campaign organizes with more than 50 tenant groups across the country. In this wide-ranging interview, Raghuveer discusses the state of national tenant organizing today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Steve Dubb: How did you become involved in tenant organizing?

Tara Raghuveer: I started as an eviction researcher. I came back to Kansas City, which is my hometown, in 2013 to study evictions in the metropolitan area, both on the Missouri side and the Kansas side. Ultimately, I got access to 200,000 eviction records spanning 20 years in Jackson County, MO. We mapped and analyzed that data. 

In the meantime, I kind of talked myself into a job running a national campaign. In 2019, I moved home to start KC Tenants, which is the citywide tenant union here. So, it is a bit of a circuitous journey, but it starts with eviction research and then there is a whole other story about organizing. It felt impossible to me to just observe the trends.

SD: What is the Homes Guarantee campaign and how has it developed over time?

The rent is too damn high. That’s the truth. You can knock on any door of the country and people will agree with that sentiment. TR: The Homes Guarantee has a simple premise: We live in the richest country in the world. We can and must guarantee that everyone has a home.

I started organizing with a national network called People’s Action in 2017. One of my favorite stories to tell is that, in 2018, a year-and-a-half into my work with that campaign, we brought the leadership team together—tenants, unhoused people, public housing residents from across the country. We gathered for a retreat. 

We were going to make decisions about identifying a specific campaign that we could all run together, but the leaders who we had gathered rejected that approach. They said, “There is no Medicare for All for housing. There’s no Green New Deal for housing. There is no big agenda for housing. We need to be the group that starts to articulate that.” The rallying cry of this campaign has become: “The rent is too damn high.” The Homes Guarantee campaign was born there.

The rent is too damn high. That’s the truth. You can knock on any door of the country and people will agree with that sentiment.  

In the following year, we started to really flesh out our vision. We wrote a briefing book that we published in September 2019. The timing of that was very strategic. Within weeks, [Senator] Bernie Sanders adopted it as his housing platform. It helped shape a lot of the other more progressive presidential candidates in their housing agendas. A lot of down-ballot candidates started adopting a “homes guarantee” framework as they spoke about housing issues. 

It also, I think, importantly, provided us a framework that would become extremely useful in the first few months of the pandemic in 2020. And what I mean by that is that this North Star, when it was articulated, helped to guide every decision we made in that chaotic crisis, rapid-response moment.  

One way that happened was there was a proposal brought by the [real estate] establishment on rental assistance. We ran that proposal through our Homes Guarantee framework, and we said to ourselves, “We can’t support this. It is a no-strings bailout to the industry that commodifies our homes and puts all the burden of seeking relief on the most vulnerable party.”

What we heard from our leaders was that we needed to cancel rent and mortgage payments. We ended up organizing around rent and mortgage cancellation both at the local and state level, and we led federal efforts to that end. 

They were hugely unsuccessful. We got trounced by the establishment, and then we tried to make the rental assistance better by attaching conditions to rental assistance. And, again, we lost. And the next summer, when rental assistance ended, rents were the highest they have ever been. 

It was this horrible “we told you so” moment. It brings us no pleasure to reflect on that. But the more sobering reflection is about the power we do not have yet to win what we need at the federal level. Learning that lesson in 2020 reset our strategy significantly. We invested a lot of time and energy trying to bring more tenants into tenant unions and building our base across the country. And we also have sharpened our federal campaign. 

Now we are really focused on winning conditions attached to every dollar of federally backed financing through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It sounds wonky. But we think this is the biggest, most available material step towards protect[ing] tenants through federal intervention today.

It is not enough…to just introduce a message bill that has some of the good ideas we want to see. We want to win.

SD: How do you hope to leverage Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

TR: Our federal campaign looks different both in what we’re asking for and how it is conducted. The “how” section may be the most important part, which is we have tenant leaders who are impacted leading the strategy. 

That’s made a huge difference. The place we are now versus the place we were in 2020 is remarkably different because of that strategy of centering the people who are the most impacted. That’s the “how” of it all. 

One component of the “what”—to be more specific about the campaigns we are running now—is a national tenants’ bill of rights. Part of the Homes Guarantee vision is a national tenants’ bill of rights that would protect tenants in the private market and set a floor for tenant protections across the country. And we can’t win that national tenants’ bill of rights through [the] Congress we have right now. Even when Congress was in fully Democratic control a couple of years that wouldn’t have been possible. We just don’t have the votes to get it passed. So, we are clear on that. 

We are a campaign that is really dedicated to not existing purely in a narrative space. It is not enough for our leaders to just introduce a message bill that has some of the good ideas we want to see. We want to win. As an organizer, I like to win. I want to win in my lifetime. I want people’s lives to materially change. 

It is not satisfying—to our leaders, certainly not—to just talk about an issue and have great ideas but not develop an organizing strategy to get there. With some clarity that we were not going to get the tenants’ bill of rights that we wanted from Congress, we turned our attention to executive and administrative action. 

So, we did that kind of inquiry. The result of that inquiry was that the strongest hook for federal tenant protections was the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which is the regulator and conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Between the two, annually, they do $150 billion in business with some of the biggest landlords in the country. 

They also are enabling some of the worst behaviors in the market because of loan terms that incentivize regular and aggressive rent hikes.

A lot of work last summer was putting pressure on the White House to direct or invite FHFA to pursue some kind of regulatory agenda related to this market. And the White House ultimately put out a blueprint for tenant rights in January of this year. One of the commitments that they sought from FHFA was a process to investigate what they could do to protect tenants, including protecting tenants against egregious rent hikes. 

As a result, this past summer, FHFA had a public request-for-information process where they [were] requesting input from anyone on tenant protections. We knocked on thousands of doors across the country—and drove in the vast majority of the couple thousand comments that FHFA received. They typically do not receive anything nearing that volume of comments for their RFIs as you can imagine. Right now, they are in a head-down moment, analyzing all the comments that came in.

We’ve done our own analysis. That analysis says that 70 percent of comments that were public comments were from tenants and allies. The vast majority of those are in support of tenant protections and rent regulations. 

SD: At a conference earlier this year, you had this pithy statement: “Our housing system is a catastrophic failure.” What elements do you see that are driving that failure?

We actually need to change the nature of the market entirely. We need to regulate this market that is currently functioning like the Wild West.TR: Yes, the housing system, as we know it today, is a catastrophic failure. The evidence is all around us. 

The drivers of it, I think, have to do with handing over the reins of our housing system to the private market—to the industry that commodifies our homes and profits from our basic need to have a home.  

It’s a trend that started in earnest in the Reagan era. And there has kind of been an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government related to our homes. 

And that is the root cause [of] a lot of the failure we observe today. Industry has us and our government in a chokehold. Even on the campaign we are running now, the industry gets to say, “If you introduce all these regulations, we are going to stop building. We are not going to be able to build. It is going to impact liquidity. It is going to change the nature of the market entirely.”

We say: “Changing the nature of the market entirely is the point. The market today is not serving anyone except you guys, who are raking in more profits than ever before. We actually need to change the nature of the market entirely. We need to regulate this market that is currently functioning like the Wild West.”

It’s a catastrophic failure that leaves millions of people in this country housing insecure, [with] several hundred thousand people sleeping on the streets in the richest country of the world. 

When you have a consolidated market, as in any industry, a few players get to do things like set prices and determine practices and everyone else is just kind of trapped in the architecture of the market that they produce. They are creating the massive crisis. They are manufacturing it. 

The last thing I will say on this—so often, we encounter what is, I think, a really protracted debate about housing supply. Because the industry again kind of dominates this conversation. They’ll say that the real problem is supply and underproduction.  

So, they argue, “Give us more money so we can produce more.” It makes sense why they would make this argument because it serves their interest. 

But they are not telling the full story. It is not that we have a housing supply gap; we have an affordable housing supply gap. Production has been at record highs the last couple [of] years, but not for the type of housing that tenants can afford. 

And, in the meantime, between 2019 and 2021 alone, we lost 1.2 million units of affordable housing. Even the language to describe the trend is limiting. Because those units weren’t lost. They haven’t disappeared. They weren’t demolished. The landlords hiked the rent. Meanwhile, even the most ambitious supply plans, like the Biden supply action plan that was announced a couple of years ago, has us building 1.5 million units in five years. 

SD: What are the leading challenges that you face in tenant organizing? 

TR: I see two big challenges. One is pretty fundamental: It’s difficult to organize tenants when they are so materially unstable in their homes. It’s a really different organizing challenge than organizing workers on a job site, for example, where typically…there’s a little bit more longevity where you can build relationships and build trust, bring people in on strategy, inoculate against the opposition. 

In tenant organizing, you are knocking on doors of people who may have only lived there three months or may know that they will not be able to be there long term. People’s relationships to their homes tends to be different than their relationship to their jobs. And the premise of organizing as a collective around your home is in some ways contrary to this American idea of individualism and the home and what that means for you and your family. A lot of people say to us. “I don’t talk to my neighbors. I keep to myself. Why would I ever talk to them?”

Those challenges really are inherent to tenant organizing. We have to get people politicized around their identity as a tenant, which is not something people are necessarily familiar with—or if they are, it is an identity of shame rather than an identity of power or connection. We need to get people around the idea of a union and what a union can do in their housing context. That is usually better shown rather than told. So, people actually need to see and feel the material impact of being in a union, which takes time, and if people are being churned in and out of their housing situation constantly, the basis for organizing is really tough.

So that is one major challenge in tenant organizing. The other big one I would name that mostly shows up at the federal level for us but is rampant throughout is how tenants are regarded versus industry: like who is considered experts on what. 

In the federal campaign, this is coming up all the time right now. The industry speculates that if we introduce regulations, then the nature of the industry will change, and liquidity will be impacted. It is all speculation. But because it is coming from industry, it is believed. 

We are speculating that things will change for the better and tenants will have stability. But the question is whose expertise is valued by decision-makers. What we often see, especially at the federal level, is that tenants are welcome at the table so long as they are talking about their trauma or their pain. They are not necessarily seen as real experts of what is needed. They are not sought for their expertise [in] policy moving forward. 

That eats at us. It is all well and good to facilitate some engagement for the first time between tenants and major decision-makers. But if we’re always at the little kids’ table, and we know there is an adults’ table over there, where they are talking about housing supply and industry talking points are the dominant understanding of the economics of housing, that’s an issue. 

SD: How has private equity affected the housing market in the communities you are organizing in?

TR: In a big way, I think private equity has shaped the last decade of the housing market. It didn’t start then. But private equity buyouts of whole blocks and neighborhoods in communities across the country has undoubtedly played a role in creating the market as we know it today. Institutional investors are the main drivers of market consolidation. The private equity model is about maximizing profit and minimizing expense. So, overall, the trend toward financialization is in the opposite direction of everything we want.

SD: How did COVID change tenant organizing? 

TR: A critical shift was moving towards tenant unions as the vehicle for exercising collective tenant power. 

In some ways, the origin story for that has everything to do with the pandemic and realizing how little power we had to wield during one of the most important moments in our lifetimes.

Now a lot was won during that time. But I think there’s a real need to be clear that a lot more was possible that we didn’t have the power to win. 

For a time, the federal government intervened to stop evictions and that called a really important question about whether or not evictions should exist. We started saying in the tenant movement that every eviction is an act of violence. That doesn’t come with a caveat that every eviction is an act of violence unless you have an attorney, in which case it is fine. 

That’s the violence of this system. The state supports investors to get their money and get us out. That was the first moment in recent history where we had the federal government join us in calling the question on that system. And so much more was possible then and so much is possible now as a result of those questions being called. 

But unfortunately, in the years since then, in some ways because of the lack of power we had in 2020 and 2021, what we’ve seen are some of the most massive rent hikes in history. We’ve seen a huge upswell in evictions post moratoriums. We’ve seen a further consolidation of the rental market. 

So, in many ways, I think that we are living in a moment where we have taken big steps backward from the opening created during the pandemic. Our project is to ensure that those questions that we had been calling, that got amplified during the pandemic, are continually called—and specifically this question about the role of the government in relation to our homes. Our project is to advance that question and advance the role of tenants in answering that question as much as we can.

SD: Do you have a sense of how much tenant union organizing has increased? 

TR: What is challenging is that there’s nothing for tenants like what exists for workers through the National Labor Relations Board. There is no formal process by which a tenant union gets recognized. And, in some ways, that is a good thing. In some ways, that’s limiting. 

Some of the limitations of the formality in the labor movement is there is almost so much formality that sometimes it eradicates the possibility for truly radical action. In the tenant movement, it is completely different. I mean, there is no formal process. There is no recognition. Some cities have started to explore a little bit more formal recognition of tenant unions. 

We are working on our own measures, so we can hopefully sometime soon tell the story of the growth of tenant unions across the country. For now, what I can tell you is anecdotally in our work, three years ago, in 2020, we were in relationship with a dozen or so community organizations working on housing across the country, and maybe one or two tenant unions that were organizing around this issue concertedly. 

Now we are in touch with 50-plus organizations that are aligned with us on the federal campaign and are organizing tenants and 12 to 15 of these organizations are tenant unions, who are kind of developing this shared methodology of what it means to organize a union of tenants and how to wield that power. 

So that’s within our campaign, but we have certainly observed a growth in both clarity and practice around tenant organizing. I think we have a contributed to that in many ways. We have developed a bunch of trainings and leadership development tools in the last couple of years, and we intend to do much more of that in the years to come.

SD: What are some of the key wins at the local level that you have seen?  

TR: We’ve seen tons. This is what’s fun. While we’ve been on this winding journey to win something material federally, we have been investing in the power of local unions and they have been on a rampage in a good way of winning a bunch of stuff locally that we didn’t think was necessarily possible.

In Louisville, there’s a very powerful tenant union called the Louisville Tenant Union that’s been winning campaigns at the building level to improve conditions, to cancel contracts with bad maintenance providers, to win city policy. They are working on some state work too. We have been organizing with a tenant union in Bozeman, MT, that won a ban on second-home short-term rentals. There are campaigns underway in places like Stockton, CA, and in the West Side of St. Paul, MN, to win tenant protections at the city level. A tenant’s bill of rights was won by the Miami Workers Center in Miami that in some ways was modeled off the KC Tenants-backed bill of rights that was won in 2019 here. We won the tenant’s right to counsel in 2021 in Kansas City, which has provided free attorneys to tenants for two years now, with massive success. There are all sorts of wins like that.

The wins that are equally important to the tenant unions are wins by building unions and neighborhood unions, which tend to be a lot more about material conditions for tenants in a building or in a property or across a neighborhood. We have seen a real surge of that type of win as we have developed some of this practice of how a building of tenants can get together and assert their needs to their landlord.

SD: At a conference earlier this year, you talked about tenant union organizing across race. What tactics do you find are effective in advancing multiracial organizing?

TR: I think the main thing we talk about at KC Tenants and in a bunch of the tenant unions that we work with is that we don’t organize around ideology. We organize around mutual interest. I think that’s particularly helpful in a multiracial organizing context. We are not knocking on the door and railing against…racial capitalism. That might come later. But we are knocking on the door and asking: “Are you mad that the county has bought the land under your trailer so they can build a jail?” The answer most of the time is “yes.” That’s the starting point for organizing. It is around mutual interest. It is connecting people to their neighbors and then to the union. 

And then there is a really important project around political education. It is not kumbaya, as if nothing has occurred between the races. We have to be honest about the racialized expression of this issue. 

So, there is political education that we take very seriously in our organizations that gets our base and gets our tenant leadership equipped with shared language so that we can have shared action. That is kind [of] the purpose of a lot of our training, whether it’s political education or otherwise, is equipping people with language that they can share among the collective that helps us understand the problems and work toward solutions. 

The truth is what I have found at every twist and turn over the last 10 years that I have been working on this is that most people know—and I mean this very sincerely and I have organized all kinds of people at this point—most people know and share some fundamental understanding of the truth, who is at fault, and who they have shared interests with. A lot of the organizing we do across all lines of difference is a matter of framing. It’s a matter of helping people understand they have more in common with each other than any of them have in common with the private equity investor who has raised the rent on their home. 

SD: What is your positive vision of social housing in the United States?

TR: We wrote extensively about social housing in the Homes Guarantee briefing book that we put out in 2019. It needs to be updated in my view to scale. We put that out in 2019. In the meantime, there has been a global pandemic and multiple economic crises. We called for 12 million units of housing back then. It probably needs to be 20 or 30 million units now. 

The thing to avoid right now is that the term “social housing” has become sexy in a way that is almost making it lose its meaning. We don’t mean public-private development. We don’t mean a little pilot over there, a little project over here. 

We don’t mean any of these other schemes that are often confused for social housing.

We mean massive investment in housing that is off the private market and backed by public dollars in perpetuity. That’s permanently affordable. That’s democratically controlled. The state has a major role to play. That’s our vision.