What laws protect my right to form, join, belong to, and participate in a tenants’ association?
Real Property Law § 230
Landlords cannot interfere with the right of tenants to form, join, or participate in any group formed to protect rights of tenants, nor harass or punish tenants or withhold any right from tenants for exercising this right. Tenant groups have the right to meet on premisesin areas devoted to common use [free of charge].
A tenant association is a union of all or most of the tenants in a building. When tenants work together, they can apply more pressure to make a landlord provide services, make repairs, and stop harassment—and get the best possible home for the rent they’re paying. A strong tenant association can force a landlord to listen; as a group, the tenants can have more leverage to negotiate, file complaints with the city and state agencies that oversee housing, get help from elected officials, go to court, or—if push comes to shove—call a rent strike.
But besides working together to make the conditions in your building better, there are other good reasons for forming a tenant association. It’s a wonderful way to get to know your neighbors, make new friends, and build a healthier community. Tenant associations make the neighborhood a better place for everyone! Tenant associations also strengthen the citywide tenants’ movement, which works to protect and expand tenants’ rights and increase the amount of affordable housing available for all of us.
Once your tenant association is up and running, you may or may not want to have a formal structure with elected officers, committees, and by-laws. Many associations get along perfectly well with nothing more than officers, and in a larger building, floor captains. If your building is very large or there’s a lot of work for the tenant association, the tenants can decide whether they want more structure. It’s a good idea to hold off on this process until people have had a chance to work together for a while, so that they can get to know each other well enough to see who has good leadership skills.
There is no registration procedure or other formal process that tenant associations must go through to become formalized. There is no officially recognition of tenant associations under the law nor are there special legal powers. Tenant associations are simply groups of people who have decided to work together in dealings with their landlord and other matters relating to their community.
Your landlord is not required by law to recognize or deal with your tenant association, and in the beginning, your landlord may simply ignore your group. Your power will come through your coordinated, collective action. For example, when numerous tenants call 311 in a coordinated way to complain about conditions, or file a case in housing court together, they can accomplish more than when tenants act alone.
There are legal procedures and actions specifically designed for groups of tenants. The process is often easier when coordinated through a tenant association.
Group HP Actions
In housing court, groups of tenants from the same building can file a Group HP Action to sue their landlord for repairs and services. In a Group HP Action, tenants from multiple apartments in the same building are asking for repairs or services in all of their individual apartments and/or in common areas of the building or areas (like the roof) which affect multiple apartments. Group HP Actions are often more effective than HP Actions that are filed by individuals, and often capture the attention of the judge. Free legal service providers and nonprofit organizations that provide tenant assistance are overwhelmed, and are often forced to turn away individual tenants (particularly with service or repair issues) but groups may be more effective in getting assistance from these organizations. There is only one filing fee for the entire group rather than each tenant paying the fee for individual HP Actions. Also, in a Group HP Action one representative can show up to the court appearances on behalf of the entire group, making it easier for people to access the courts who would otherwise have difficulty making all of the appointments.
New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) allows tenants to file rent-reduction orders for decreased services or repairs. Tenants can coordinate filing RA-81s for their individual apartments and for building wide repairs can sign on to RA-84s as a whole group with a supplemental form. Groups of tenants are often more effective when dealing with HCR than individuals are.
When landlords of rent-regulated buildings file for Major Capital Improvement rent increases, tenants have a limited amount of time to challenge the landlord’s application. Groups of tenants can file challenges to the MCI together. Groups are typically much more effective than individuals with this. Filing an effective challenge to an MCI can be a lot of work, and the time period in which tenants must file their challenge and respond to subsequent deadlines are relatively short. Groups of tenants can divide up the work and accomplish a lot more.
Also, there are potential challenges to the landlord’s MCI application that will only be made evident when tenants from different apartments share with each other. For example, if the MCI was for a new roof and that roof leaks in one of the apartments, or for a new boiler but certain apartments are not getting adequate heat, the conditions in those individual apartments can be the basis of a group of tenants asking for the MCI to be rejected for everyone filing the challenge.
For more, see our information sheet on MCI rent increases
Consolidating Housing Court cases
If your landlord sues multiple tenants from your building in Housing Court at the same time, you may be able to get the cases consolidated and dealt with all at once. The issues must be related to each other, and not specific to each individual tenant. For example, if many tenants withheld rent at the same time due to a lack of repairs or services, and are all being sued for nonpayment of rent at the same time, the tenants could ask for all of the cases to be consolidated into one. This is a complicated procedure and usually requires the assistance of an experienced tenant attorney. Also: there are serious consequences for withholding rent and tenants are strongly encouraged to seek the counsel of a an experienced tenant lawyer or tenant advocacy group before withholding rent.
There are no set rules for starting a tenant association. However, based on the experience of thousands of associations that have already been organized, you can have a good idea of what to do and what to expect.
If you think that your building really needs a tenant association, it’s probably because you have problems that you can’t get corrected by yourself no matter how hard you try.
It is almost certain that other tenants in the building feel the same way—and some of them will be more than willing to start working together with you. The first step in forming a tenant association is to find out who those tenants are, and the best way to do that is to call a meeting and see who comes. Housing law guarantees your right to meet in a public space in your building, so feel free to use the lobby or any other public space for your meetings. You can advertise the meeting by putting notes under people’s doors, posting flyers in the hallways, and talking directly to the people you already know. If more than one language is spoken in your building and you’re not bilingual, get some help in translating your written messages and make sure that there’s someone at every meeting who can provide interpretation—it’s important to make sure that the “language barrier” doesn’t keep tenants apart.
At that first meeting, expect a lot of shouting! Unless your building is generally well maintained, almost everyone will have a horror story to tell about the conditions in their apartment. If the landlord has been really negligent and abusive, a lot of people will be very angry, and there will be a lot of “venting.” This is where you start finding out just how urgent the problems in your building are, and what steps you need to take next.
It’s a good idea to try to arrive at some kind of agreement among the tenants about who will represent the association while it’s starting out, and decide on one or more people to be your contacts. These could be the people who called the meeting and/or other building residents who have the respect of the tenants. You can also ask people to volunteer to be “floor captains,” so that work and responsibilities can be shared. The floor captains can distribute meeting notices, coordinate building surveys, and act as contacts for the tenants on their floors. As your tenant association becomes more formalized, the floor captains can serve as members of the steering committee. Now, you’re well on your way to building a tenant association!
Going from door to door and talking to your fellow tenants directly—and listening to what they have to say—helps create a sense of connection around your shared problems, and build support for the association. This is also a perfect opportunity to conduct a building survey—to make a record of all the problems in the individual apartments and public areas of the building. You can either make your own list, or use pre-printed building-survey forms (use our Inspection Check List). You can also take this opportunity to provide everyone with information such as the phone numbers for key agencies, especially the Central Complaint number for heat and hot water: 311.
Going around the building knocking on doors is easier and more fun if at least two people do it together. It’s especially important to make sure that the door-knocking team includes people who represent the different ethnic and language groups in your building, especially in the beginning, when people may not know one another very well. This way, everyone gets the message: the tenant association is for everyone!
Using Notes, Flyers, and Newsletters
A note under the door is the easiest way to reach everyone in the building, especially if you want to alert people to an event—like an upcoming tenant association meeting. Keep your notes short, sweet, and to the point. You can also post flyers around the building announcing tenant association activities. Include the names and home phone numbers of the representatives of the association. A newsletter is optional, depending on your resources. You can use it to let tenants know about the accomplishments of the tenant association, including negotiations with the landlord, court cases, and community support for your struggle. You can also announce the social events of residents in the building, such as births, weddings, and graduations.
Let the Good Times Roll!
Getting to know your neighbors is one of the best things about organizing a tenant association. Make time for socializing! If you can serve refreshments at meetings, and leave some time for people to “visit” before and/or after them, they’ll be more eager to attend. But you don’t have to stop there. Potluck suppers, birthday parties, and celebrations—especially when you’ve won a battle—can all be part of the good times.
Effective tenant associations are highly democratic—they involve as many people as possible in making decisions, especially important ones. This means that meetings are important. Here are some tips for running a meeting well:
Begin and end on time. Don’t make the people who are prompt wait too long for the latecomers. Do end at a set time, so that people can plan their other activities around the meeting.
Have an agenda. It’s good to have a clear, written agenda, which can be prepared before the meeting by members of the steering committee. An agenda can include the following:
- Introductions: Make sure everyone at the meeting introduces themselves. Then you can give updates on recent developments—and credit where credit is due. This is the time to thank the people who have made something happen!
- General discussion of problems in the building: This may include individual problems, but now is the time to strategize and agree on what your next steps are going to be, such as negotiating with the landlord as a united group, which is much more effective than making individual requests; suing the landlord for repairs in housing court; hiring an attorney; or filing complaints with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
- Deciding on a rent strike, HP Action, etc: Since changes in the rent regulation laws in 1997 and the common practice of “blacklisting” , rent strikes are much riskier than they used to be. If you decide that the conditions in your building are so bad that a rent strike is in order, consider retaining an attorney, either privately or through a public legal service provider. You may also consider starting a group HP Action for repairs and services in your borough’s housing court. Starting an HP Action will not put you or your neighbors on the tenant blacklist.
- Figuring out who’s going to do what: Once you’ve decided on a plan of action, sign up the volunteers to follow through on it. Delegating responsibility and sharing tasks helps keep everyone involved—and the leadership from “burning out.”
- Make ground rules if you need to. You don’t have to try to apply Roberts’ Rules of Order, but you can remind people to be courteous, let everyone speak their piece, and be patient during translations.
If your steering committee is working well, you have a natural pool of talent from which to elect officers for the tenant association. The officers may be a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer, plus floor captains for each floor (who may or may not be on the steering committee).
These are usually the officers’ roles:
- President: Calls meetings of the steering committee, chairs steering committee meetings and performs whatever other tasks are given to him or her at the meetings.
- Vice-president: Assists and substitutes for the president.
- Secretary: Takes minutes at steering committee and general meetings, keeps the association’s files, and is responsible for correspondence. This is an important role, since the association will almost certainly correspond with the landlord to make the tenants’ demands; in very large buildings, “corresponding secretary” is sometimes a separate position.
- Treasurer: Collects dues, coordinates fund-raising activities, takes responsibility for the financial affairs of the association in general, and issues financial reports to the members.
- Floor captains: Work on their floors distributing flyers, talking to tenants, and knocking on doors.
Always give prior written notice of an election to all the tenants. Every tenant in the building should have the right to participate in the elections. You can nominate slates or elect people to each position one at a time. Again, it’s a good idea to have a fair representation of different groups of people in the building when you’re electing officers.
Committees really help to keep your tenant association running smoothly, by dividing up the responsibility of the work of the organization. Committees can work on things like drafting by-laws, forming a tenant patrol, putting out a newsletter, planning social events, and helping to bring about conflict resolution among tenants.
By-laws help to avoid confusion about the purpose of your group and how it goes about carrying out its plans, by putting down in writing the purpose of the association and the responsibilities of members and leaders, as well as formalizing the decision-making process. Keep them as simple as possible. The by-laws may be drafted by the steering committee or by a special by-laws committee. Sample by-laws are available from your local community board and from community-based organizations. (Met Council can also provide sample by-laws.)
“Eyes On The Prize”
Always remember that your goal is a better place to live—decent, affordable housing and a healthy neighborhood. If your whole tenant association is just a handful of people organized in a way that’s never been done by anyone else, but you’re able to keep the heat and hot water on, get repairs made, and keep your building and block safe and sound, you’re a success—and that’s what matters!
There is no need to incorporate or register your tenants’ association with any government agency. There is no form to fill out, and starting a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is a very time-consuming and expensive procedure which usually isn’t necessary. Many tenant associations have no need to collect money, but if you decide to open up a bank account, the easiest option is to open a joint personal bank account under the names of multiple officers. You can require that two or three people sign checks as a security measure.
There is no requirement that tenant associations collect dues. For many reasons, it is often better to avoid dealing with money at all. Dues may discourage some people from getting involved. Handling money and doing bookkeeping can be a hassle, and there is the potential for the person handling the money to be accused of mishandling it. Before deciding to collect dues, ask yourself – why are we doing this? Is it necessary?
Sometimes tenant associations collect dues just to pay for the expenses associated with running the group (such as photocopying) or to pay for things like refreshments at meetings. For this, a few dollars per year may be enough. In such cases you may want to consider just “passing the hat” at meetings where there were costs incurred, and to make donations voluntary.
One-time money collection may be on a one-time basis – such as to pay the filing fee of a Group HP Action. Again, ask yourself if dues are necessary, of if you can split the costs of this just once.
In some cases, tenant associations decide to raise significant amounts of money, such as to pay for a lawyer that represents all of the tenants in the association. If you do collect dues or raise funds, make sure to formalize the process, and keep good accounting. Don’t leave one person in charge of everything related to money. Require multiple signers to bank accounts, and share updates on your finances (including actual bank statements) at all meetings.
Tenant associations that collect rent on behalf of tenants on rent strike should be extremely careful, and seek legal guidance. If rent money is mismanaged it can result in tenants being evicted. You are strongly encouraged to seek the guidance of an experienced tenant attorney or tenant advocacy group before withholding rent.
The information contained on this web page does not constitute legal advice and must not be used as a substitute for the advice of a lawyer qualified to give advice on legal issues pertaining to housing. For more, visit our page on Finding a lawyer.
This information pertains only to tenants living in New York City.
Many of your rights depend on the type of housing you live in or your type of tenancy. You may be subject to different laws and have different sets of rights than even neighbors in your own building. Learn which rights and responsibilities apply to you.