Philly Socialists and the Philadelphia Tenants Union - A Review Two Years Later

I'm reviewing the original Philadelphia Tenants Union proposal that was proposed by David Thompson and Tim Horras for the Philly Socialists in August 2015. At that time, Tim Horras was chair of the organization. And David Thompson currently is chair.

For the record, I'm currently a dues-paying, but inactive, Philly Socialists member. I was very active in August 2015 and before.

Their proposal (see below) might have been slightly modified (before adoption) to include more of a time line.

At the time, I argued as the person with the second most involvement in our tenants campaign organizing the Winchester apartment building (near my house) that it was unrealistic. I did this due to repeated short-comings in the Winchester campaign as we were overwhelmed and failed to build a sustainable group of tenant leaders. For my recommendations to make this proposal more realistic, I was repeatedly personally attacked. As such, I did not attend the citywide meeting where the proposal was overwhelmingly passed. Unfortunately it is very easy to pass an unrealistic proposal in most organizations and nobody likes the critic.

Even with the Philly Socialists doubling our membership with help from regular recruitment, Trump's win and a lesser extent the opening for socialism provided by the Sanders campaign, the organization and tenants union haven't come close to the proposal's original goals. Even my original amendment was too optimist. In retrospect, I was very concerned about whether we should be trying to found a city-wide organization at all - however, I chose not to publicly advocate for that position out of a spirit of compromise.

Creating new powerful massive or national organizations is the type of thing that white men, like myself, are constantly trying to do. I've also seen this repeatedly in the student movement.

The Philly Socialists claim to practice Base Building (building a strong membership base before taking on fights that you will lose), and initially practiced this by not even taking on any campaigns and only doing serve the people projects up until when I joined. However with the creation of the Philly Tenants Union and a National Network - the organization is moving away from Base Building to Statue Building. Statue Building (my own term) involves creating heavy structures that the base (members/organizers) cannot sustain. Statues are also known for falling over.

The Philly Socialists should be forming mass sustainable organizations in Philadelphia. Before we build a city-wide tenants union and aim for thousands of members, we should successfully organize a single apartment building, build a sustainable leadership team from that building, and win a fight without burning out our core organizers. This alone is likely to take several tries. Two years into the Tenants Union we have failed to do this. Before we build a national network of groups, we should build strong neighborhood chapters in Philadelphia. Currently the organization has failed to build sustainable chapters in several parts of the city and has tried to solve this by centralizing power in a small number of "cadre".

Heck a dedicated organizer could potentially build a socialist organization with 10+ members on the side of the block I live on (out of the 50 people who live on this side of the block). My block is fairly typical for West Philly. And even if you can only organize 4% of the people instead of 20%, you could easily have 100+ members in my neighborhood and build the deepest and strongest socialist neighborhood group in the US.

Unfortunately I'm not that good of an organizer and am very introvert (though less so when it comes to organizing), so I'm not trying to build a block-level organization. However, I am co-launching a new group to win small campaigns for social justice in my west philly neighborhood. We'll win campaigns with 5-15 people that are within 2 miles of where we live, build leaders, build power, and hopefully encourage others to copy our model. I've currently got a list of 13 possible campaigns, several of which could be run 10-100 times each against successive targets.

Now of course the Philadelphia Tenants Union is full of hardworking people who deserve credit for fighting hard and trying to make breakthroughs in tenants organizing. The conditions in which hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia tenants live in are unfair to downright appalling. I'd be happy to be proven wrong and for us to have a mass organization with thousands of members and 5-50 organized buildings that passed a Renters Bill of Rights that was written by tenants. However, we owe it to the working class to be honest about our capabilities.

Tenants Union Proposal Goals and Reality
*5000 tenant union members by Nov. 2016 -- I'm guessing that we currently have 30-100 members.

*30,000 signatures on a Just Cause petition by Sept 30, 2016 -- As of now, we have 1000.

*City council majority vote for a ballot initiative -- As of now we are working on getting a single council member to support an initiative.

*A Renters Bill of Rights - this was significantly downsized to stop evictions that lacked a Just Cause.

My Amendments and Reality
Proposed Amendment #1
To strike all references to running a ballot initiative.
-In practice the ballot initiative is not happening. Just Cause may eventually be passed by City Council, but the Tenants Union is unlikely to get 30,000 signatures any time soon.

Proposed Amendment #2
To postpone the West Philly mass meeting until November 2015.
-The original proposal wanted it in September or October 2015. In reality, this meeting happened in December 2015.

Proposed Amendment #3
To postpone the citywide meeting until April 2016.
The original proposal wanted it in December 2015. In reality it happened in April 2016.


Hi all,

Attached and below find a proposal for a citywide campaign to build a tenants union and pass a renter's bill of rights. This is submitted for consideration at the August 9th Citywide Meeting.


Citywide Campaign to Build a Tenants Union and Pass a Renter's Bill of Rights

Launching a Citywide Tenants Union and Agitating for a Renter’s Bill of Rights

Since early 2014, Philly Socialists has run projects that “Fight the Power.” These projects build our capacity to fight and beat agents of capital. Combined with the administrative capacities we acquire through our “Serve the People” projects, the abilities we gain from our “Fight the Power” work are essential to the struggle for socialism.

So far, this “Fight the Power” work has been based on a solidarity network model. We have made alliances with individuals who were wronged by landlords. This model has much to recommend it. The activists who plan and execute solidarity network campaigns acquire experience in waging class struggle. Given that the solidarity network model involves taking on weak enemies who have little experience confronting organized opposition, the campaigns we have run have built up cadre in relatively low-stakes situations.

But this case-by-case model only allows for the development of a handful of activists at a time. Thanks to consistent recruitment and retention efforts, we have reached the point where we have more talent available to us than we can deploy in solidarity network fights. Additionally, the hyperlocal focus of the campaigns has made it difficult to build coordination between our activist cells at work in different areas of the city. Our organization now has the potential to become a significant citywide political force, but we have to act on a much larger scale in order to harness that potential.

We began our “Fight the Power” work in 2014 by making one rich guy concede a small one-time rent reduction and repairs for one person. We ended our next campaign a year later by making a company concede thousands of dollars in direct compensation, forgive thousands more in back rent, make major capital improvements to an entire apartment building, and preserve the affordability of apartments in an area where greedy landlords are salivating over the remaining affordable housing stock. This was a big leap for us. But to become the political force we want Philly Socialists to be, the next leap has to be even bigger.

Therefore, we propose that Philly Socialists combine its branches’ “Fight the Power” projects into a single project—a campaign for a citywide tenant union.

As usual, we will deploy a dual power strategy: build our own independent people's power – in this case through the creation of a “base organization”, while simultaneously bringing class struggle on the corridors of the powerful.

The first pole of dual power will be accomplished by attempting to sign up 5,000 members for a Philadelphia-wide tenants union by November 2016. This organization will engage in the kinds of solidarity network style tenant organizing we have been hitherto engaged in, but on a larger scale. This mass democratic organization will serve as an institution of dual power, where policy is decided and voted upon by residents of the city regardless of their immigration status and regardless of whether or not they are registered to vote in governmental elections.

The second pole of dual power means we will circulate both at the neighborhood and ultimately citywide level several potential Amendments to the City Charter which are decisively pro-renter. If one of the amendments is selected, the Federation of Tenants will launch a signature collection campaign with the goal of collecting at least 30,000 valid signatures of registered voters by no later than September 30th 2016.

We will then pressure City Council to provide a majority vote to introduce the ballot initiative, with the proviso that we will also look into a Plan B of instigating legal challenges to the courts if the Council refuses to adhere to the will of the people.

If the Amendment is put on the ballot, the Federation of Tenants will work toward its adoption by a majority of Philadelphia voters.

How we get there

1) Survey the Scene: research and power structure analysis

The first step is to assess the lay of the land and the balance of power. We need to perform a thorough investigation of the dynamics of Philly’s housing/rental market. We need to investigate who holds what power in and out of government. We need to know what laws govern these things, and which laws have real power behind them. We need to have knowledge and understanding that allow us to agitate both lower-income, longtime residents and higher-income front-line gentrifiers. Research, then, needs to be performed on items like:

-Trends in rent levels in target neighborhoods.

-Identities of owners of multiple properties.

-These owners’ business and political connections.

-What government entities hold power in the market and what their authorities are.

-Recently passed or debated legislation/policies related to development, housing, tenant rights.

-Prior precedent regarding ballot initiatives and charter changes

-Past campaigns for tenant rights (e.g., the campaign for rent control in the 1970s).

-Potential allies and enemies.

-Our legal barriers.

We will need a team of focused, dedicated investigators to begin compiling, analyzing, and explaining this data. This should be a major part of our work up through September. Then we can begin making tactical choices about our political course.

2) Go to the People: on-the-ground tenant survey and mobilization effort

We also have to investigate the people’s conditions. We will develop a survey to be carried out by our activists in a carefully planned canvassing effort. This effort will help us investigate conditions, develop our activists, and begin identifying organic leaders among the people we’re organizing.

As we develop the survey, we will have to determine what we want to learn from it. This might include tenants’ contact information/stories/workplaces/interest levels, building conditions, what common threads run through different parts of the city, which landlords are known for bad practices, in what ways individual tenants have been directly affected by the machinations of developers, what other groups tenants are involved with, etc.

Once the survey is ready to go, we will train up a street team to carry it out. A professional labor organizer will conduct organizer trainings in early September. We’ll systematically target our landlord or area, collecting as much data as we can and initiating relationships with as many tenants as possible.

We should prioritize locations or target landlords in areas in the process of being gentrified or next in line to be “redeveloped.” But aside from this, we’ll have to make a number of strategic determinations about the specifics of where we survey.

3) Agitate and Educate: prepare, lead, and get people out for mass neighborhood meetings

One objective of the survey canvass will be to begin mobilizing for mass Neighborhood Meetings Against Slumlords and Gentrification interspersed through the fall. West Philly in September. Kensington in October. South Philly in November.

We will hold these meetings in order to agitate, educate, inspire, and politicize. Grievances will be aired, stories shared, and common causes discovered. We and our allies from past struggles will make the strongest case we can for collective action. This case will be based on previous struggles—ours and others—and a direct action campaign that will be run in concert with the development of the tenants union. We will begin the conversation about what we can win together if we organize together: collective bargaining agreements, rent control, security of tenure, etc. All the while, we will be laying the ground work for our next step.

We will circulate at this time 5-6 potential ballot initiatives – a Renter’s Bill of Rights, with the goal of uniting behind a single one of the questions at the Citywide Tenants Convention in December 2015.

4) Organize: a citywide Tenants Convention to determine the people’s desired course for a 2016 campaign

In December 2015, groups of tenants that we have helped organize into units will send representatives to a Philly Tenants Convention prepared to officially found a Philadelphia Independent Federation of Tenants and determine its objectives for a citywide campaign.

5) Give us the Ballot: The Democratic Charter Change Campaign

During the neighborhood meeting phase, we will introduce 5-6 potential potential Amendments to the City Charter which are decisively pro-renter. These will be altered or scrapped based on feedback from the masses, and possibly new Amendments will be introduced. At the Tenants Convention, the democratic assembly of the masses will pick a single plank to unite behind.

If one of the amendments is selected, the Federation of Tenants will launch a signature collection campaign with the goal of collecting at least 30,000 valid signatures of registered voters by no later than September 30th 2016.

We will then pressure City Council to provide a majority vote to introduce the ballot initiative, with the proviso that we will also look into a Plan B of instigating legal challenges to the courts if the Council refuses to adhere to the will of the people.

If the Amendment is put on the ballot, the Federation of Tenants will work toward its adoption by a majority of Philadelphia voters.

Appendix 1: Philadelphia Home Rule Amendment Process

A new home rule charter in Philadelphia is prepared by a charter commission appointed by city council pursuant to an ordinance passed by a vote of two thirds of the members or a petition signed by 20,000 registered voters.

The proposal of the charter commission is filed with city council. Amendments to Philadelphia’s existing home rule charter may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of city council or by a petition presented to council signed by at least 20,000 registered voters. When amendments are presented by petition, council has the power to determine whether or not they are to be submitted to the voters. 19

New charters or amendments are to be submitted to the voters at a primary, municipal or general election occurring at least 45 day after final action by council. A new charter may be submitted as a whole or in sections; alternate provisions may be presented to the voters, but any change in the method of electing city officers must be submitted as a separate question. All amendments are to be submitted as separate questions. The ballot question is to be framed in brief form of not more than 75 words.

Proposed charters or amendments are to be printed in pamphlet form for general distribution to the public at least 28 days before the election. Notice of the election is to be published not more than once nor less than less three times in three newspapers of general circulation within the city during the three weeks immediately prior to the election. Notice of the election is also to be made by proclamation of the mayor posted at each polling place and published in at least two newspapers of general circulation in the city once a week for three consecutive weeks during the thirty days prior to the election. No proposal of a similar nature can be submitted more often than once in five years. All elections are to be conducted under the provisions of the Election Code.

Adopted from 53 Pennsylvania Statutes 13102; First Class City Home Rule Act, Section 2 and 53 P.S. 13106; First Class City Home Rule Act, Section 6.

More research should be undertaken to see if there is a workaround to avoid going through City Council to put the question on the ballot directly.

Appendix 2: Potential policy ideas for ballot question

Impose a linkage fee on "residential and commercial construction in urban villages, commercial zones, lowrise zones and newly constructed single-family homes with no phase-in period."

Rent Freeze: Rents not to Exceed 30% of a Neighborhoods Median Income

This proposal would be an expansion of the rent caps laws that cities like Boston have had in the past but adding the federal standard that tenants should not pay more than 30% of their income in rent. Rent prices based on the market do not take into consideration people incomes and additionally rent cap legislation does not reflect that different neighborhoods have different income levels. This proposal takes both of those things into consideration and would cap rent at 30% of a zip codes median income. For example, if the median income in the Mission is $45,000, rent would be capped at $1125. This amount then would be the most expensive rents could be and would be for the largest units available (ie 4/5 bedroom flats).

No-Fault Eviction Moratorium:

Evictions are legal civic actions and a municipality has control about whether to see or not see these cases, as the superior courts of a county have oversight on what and how they enforce the law. No fault evictions are evictions in which the tenant has done nothing to cause the eviction, the owner has just decided that want the units back. This proposal seeks to stop no fault evictions (such as Ellis Acts, Owner Move-In, Demolitions etc.) from being grounds under which to evict a tenant. Wanting units back for whatever reason would no longer be reason enough to evict someone from their home.

Increase penalties on landlords who illegally withhold tenants' deposits.

Cap move-in costs and late fees, and require "interest accrued on deposits to be returned to tenants."

"Expand relocation assistance" and improve just cause protections for renters whose leases are expiring. Just how the city should improve relocation assistance and "close developer loopholes for relocation assistance."

Issue $500 million in city bonds to fund housing that's affordable for people making 0 to 50 percent of area median income.

Create a "right of first notice" policy to give the city the chance to buy up affordable housing that's being sold to private market developers. Burgess has suggested a 15-day notice period, which Grant has argued isn't long enough. Grant has also called for an even stronger right of first refusal to give the city the first chance to actually buy buildings, rather than simply be notified when they're headed to the market.

Require "one-for-one replacement from developers whose projects are displacing affordable housing units. "One-for-one" means developers would have to offer just as many affordable units in their new projects as they were replacing. The plan doesn't specify how this would be enforced or what sort of fee developers could pay in lieu of setting aside the units.

Create a principal reduction program to reduce the amount homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages would have to pay back.

Excessive Rent Tax:

This proposal would restrict landlords from renting vacant units over a certain amount as all rental income over a certain amount would be taxed at a 100% rate (meaning that landlord would not get any income from renting). This tax would be on a graduated basis so that the higher the rent is on a vacant apartment the higher the tax is. The higher the rent the landlord charges the more they have to pay in taxes and rents over a certain amount would be taxed at a 100% level. Landlords who charges rent over a certain amount would make no profit, as all rental income above a certain level is taxed at a 100% rate and would go to the city and not the landlord.

For example, tax rate on a vacant 2 bedroom apartment:

Rent Tax % on amount over $1500

$1500 0

$1750 20% (of the $250 over $1500 the landlord would have to pay the city $50 a month)

$2000 50% (of the $500 over $1500 the landlord would have to pay the city $250 a month)

$2250 75% (of the $750 over $1500 the landlord would have to pay the city $563 a month)

$2500 100% (of the $1,000 over the $1500 the landlord would have to pay the city $1,000 a month)

Vacancy control – Restricts being able to raise rent to market value when vacant units are re-rented)


My proposed amendment which I dropped due to opposition and personal attacks.

Building a Citywide Tenants Union that Focuses on Organizing

By Aaron Kreider

I support the goal of building a citywide tenants union as it will enable us to reach hundreds and possibly thousands of people who are new to socialism. However, I think the proposal is unrealistic about our organization's capacities. So I propose to remove the ballot initiative. We should focus on building a strong tenants union and taking on fights with landlords.

The Philly Socialists are growing. I estimate the West Philly branch grew 40-50% in the past year. We are able to take on bigger fights, but we have limited people. For instance, in the Winchester fight - the West Philly branch was able to win major victories, however there were a number of shortcomings. We could have used more people to increase our level of organization. We organized events at short notice, at times with a lack of publicity (ex. last minute or no flyering of tenants), and with low attendance (ex. the tenants rights training had 6 people) from both the tenants and our members. We unofficially canceled our planned follow-up meeting with Jannie Blackwell. At the end of the fight, our attempts to engage in collective bargaining failed - and we made deals on the individual level. We also miscommunicated with our target (they failed to get our communications and we didn't do the follow-up that would have caught this), and failed to receive any media attention.

Organizing and facilitating the neighborhood mass meetings for the tenants union will require a lot of hard work. If we are to break out of our primarily white college educated base, we will need to do a lot of tabling and/or canvassing to publicize these meetings. We will want to spend 2-3 months building up for the West Philly meeting.

Financially, we have around 30 dues paying members and are running a monthly operating deficit. We need to solve this operating deficit before hiring additional organizers. Our paid organizers should prioritize training tenant leaders, not doing a ballot initiative.
Correction: We currently have 46 dues paying members and a balanced budget.
I still would like to see additional funds devoted to training tenant leaders, not doing a ballot initiative.

Most leftists engage in activism instead of organizing. They jump on the latest hot issue because it is easier, and perhaps more fun, than doing the hard work of organizing by building relationships. Our organization's goal is to build dual power. As such, we should focus on training leaders in the mass tenants union. The ballot initiative distracts us from this goal by focusing our energies on canvassing and mass publicity that will create weak ties that won't last. Instead, we should focus on creating strong democratic tenant locals (representing apartment buildings or blocks) that are run by the rank in file.

An overwhelming majority (I estimate 90-95%) of tenants will prioritize lawyers, social service agencies or moving - instead of fighting a landlord with organizing. We saw this in the Winchester fight, where even after months of relationship building, explaining, and demonstrating how nonviolent action was winning quick improvements to the building - people still wanted to prioritize lawyers and social service agencies. If we promote a ballot initiative, we will be promoting a mentality that contradicts our position on building dual power. We will be encouraging people to rely upon the law and government to solve their problems.

“Thanks to consistent recruitment and retention efforts, we have reached the point where we have more talent available to us than we can deploy in solidarity network fights.” (the citywide proposal)
I disagree. We may lack people who are willing to do organizing (and want to do easier things like protesting), but we do not have a lack of solidarity network fights. Without doing any major outreach, I know of three possible fights in West Philly (Hip City Veg badly treats employees, Gold Standard owes wages, and an apartment building isn't doing good maintenance). For every 1-2 hours of postering, we got a call to our solidarity network voice mail. While most of these people didn't follow-up or weren't interested in our model of organizing, I think that with a hundred hours of postering, and with another person or two doing the follow up calls and meetings – we could get 5-10 fights. If we had a nice flier about our victories, and/or got some media publicity and started to make a name for ourselves as winners - we'd attract even more fights.

We have other priorities that need our attention. In West Philly, we have not yet chosen our fall serve the people project. We also have a lot of interest in continuing the Solidarity Network by taking on small fights against bosses.

We should postpone the consideration of a ballot initiative until the tenants union is on stronger footing and we have shown how organizing can work.

Proposed Amendment #1
To strike all references to running a ballot initiative.

Proposed Amendment #2
To postpone the West Philly mass meeting until November 2015.

Proposed Amendment #3
To postpone the citywide meeting until April 2016.


As of Oct 5, three city council members introduced a "Good Cause" (aka Just Cause) legislation into city council and there is a good chance it will pass.

This legislation is limited in that at the end of the lease the landlord can propose a large rent increase, the tenant reject it, and then evict the tenant with "good cause".

It looks like the legislation primarily protects tenants from being evicted without cause during their lease. Notably many tenants have clauses where they can be evicted in 30 days without cause. So this will now protect them until the end of their lease - typically an extra 1 to 11 months. If any tenant has a multi-year lease, they will get additional protection.

Secondarily, if the landlord is too stupid, unwilling, or does not know that they can use a rent increase to evict a tenant, the tenant will get protection from eviction beyond the term of the lease.


Now the Philadelphia Tenants Union is likely to fight for Rent Control. This will be many times more difficult and require a powerful coalition. Without Rent Control, Just Cause does not have teeth.