Tenant Bill of Rights in San Antonio makes big first step with new resolution

Photo Credit: Texas Organizing Project

Tenants’ rights in Texas are in an exciting stage. We are advancing policies alongside community-led initiatives, everywhere from cities like Houston with Right To Counsel, to statewide efforts at the Texas Legislature where folks are testifying to defend housing justice issues. And in San Antonio, the fight for a formal Tenant Bill of Rights has been ongoing since 2019. This month, we can proudly say that with the work of dedicated individuals and groups such as Texas Organizing Project, we were able to gain a resolution for a Tenant Bill Of Rights in San Antonio as a massive first step toward establishing legal protections for renters in the city.

Almost five years ago, a small group of public housing residents living at Blanco Apartments came together to voice their issues with substandard housing conditions at their complex. They knew what they were experiencing was unjust and wanted to act. Texas Housers got involved in those early conversations, brainstorming with those tenant leaders about how we could move from naming the issues to creating the change, and especially how we could enact a solution that would apply to all public housing tenants. Though this initial group was small, each leader in that room amplified concerns they had heard from numerous residents at various complexes across the city which told us one important thing: the issue of poor housing conditions was extremely widespread and was impacting an exponentially high number of households.

The more we spoke with folks around the city, the larger this issue became. COVID-19 highlighted the hardships tenants face as well as the ease with which protections can be enacted. It soon became clear that this topic of substandard conditions was part of a larger fight where tenants’ rights in multiple facets – including access to lease documents, ability to organize with your neighbors, protection from retaliation, among others – were being violated. Through further conversations we also learned that this was happening in all types of complexes, not just public housing units. The tenant leaders knew we needed to scale up in order to have the meaningful impact that got them invested in this work in the first place.

Public Launch
Fast forward to April 2022, community members, Texas Organizing Project, My City is My Home, Coalition for Tenant Justice and Texas Housers publicly launched the San Antonio Tenant Bill of Rights campaign. Keeping the intentions of that original group of tenant leaders at the forefront, our collective began to host events, collect signatures, and raise awareness about the campaign. It was important to ensure that this effort would remain a campaign for tenants, by tenants. We hosted community meetings, had 1 on 1 conversations, met with tenants from across the city and advertised across as many platforms as possible. These many interactions with stakeholders helped solidify the components already included in the Bill of Rights while amplifying new considerations that were added into the Bill. Throughout this process, and for the better part of 2022, we started the steps to take this from an idea, to an established platform, to a resolution, to beyond.

From Conversations to Policy
In January 2023, our coalition hosted a public town hall on Tenant Bill of Rights to discuss what rights currently meant to tenants and have them share their stories. This event had a large turnout with community and press showing up, in addition to a member from Texas Apartment Association. Out of this productive meeting, TBOR received a hearing in the Planning and Community Development Committee (PCDC), and our coalition showed up in force to deliver public comment.

Following this forum, Neighborhood & Housing Services (NHSD) was charged to collect feedback from different groups and return to PCDC with updated language. A back and forth ensued over the final language, including a fight to ensure tenant organizing remained in the resolution, but thankfully we held tight and it remained, with the resolution passing in San Antonio City Council, 10 to 0 with one abstention.

A Big Win, with many steps to go
Passing this resolution was an incredible first step and a big one that we are very proud to take. From idea to policy, this campaign demonstrated exactly what it means to “lead with lived experience.” It is so important to have those who are most impacted by an issue be the ones making decisions that address said issue. “Nothing about us without us,” as so many in our community defiantly say. It is incredible what can be accomplished when tenants lead the narrative and direct the charge to improve their living conditions.

While this speaks volumes to the power that tenants (and all community leaders) wield when they have the tools needed to advocate for themselves, the Council’s passage of TBOR resolution is just the start of this process. The resolution was a ringing endorsement that San Antonio as a city wants to support tenants. This document has compiled all state laws impacting tenants in landlords in one document, and educates both residents and local leadership on what needs to be changed in order to protect tenants.

The Tenant Bill of Rights already identifies clear pathways to making sure rights are recognized and respected. It also provides a method of communication to the city if rights are not being upheld. So the next logical step is to establish strong protections on this fertile ground.

When Texas Housers was organizing in the summer of 2022 after the Tenant Bill of Rights campaign was public, we met with a lot of renters whose rights were being aggressively violated and worse yet, they didn’t know what they were experiencing was illegal. A large part of this initiative is education, and the concept that informed tenants are empowered tenants who can take control of their living situations.

The Tenant Bill of Rights encompassed all the input from all the people we worked with over the past 2 years, so it’s a victory that it is the direct result of tenants’ voicing issues and being empowered to speak up. They made sure their voices were heard loud and clear, it’s critical that we continue to amplify their demands.

Looking ahead, what’s next?
The resolution shows a verbal and moral commitment to tenants’ rights and ensures that the city values the rights and conditions in which tenants live. The city is 46% rental units so this is a signal that the City of San Antonio cares about renters. That being said, this resolution must be backed up by policies that have a legal impact. This verbal commitment only carries weight if future policies are supported. To do that will require a combination of educating all parties and of creating safe and clear pathways of communication for tenants to report when rights are violated.

We’ll continue the work with tenants, standing by their side as they empower their fellow residents and work together to make sure everyone is aware of their rights and they know what is protected by law. We will be building a network, utilizing the power that was showcased by the fact that TBOR as a resolution only came to fruition because of tenants’ experiences and their ability to share. As we have our sights set on future policies that can positively impact tenants’ lives, this vote on TBOR gives us a platform by which to engage councilmembers and other stakeholders on important tenant issues. Measures that protect the right to safe decent and affordable housing for all renters, especially families that live in low-income housing, will remain a priority. We are looking forward to seeing the council build on their commitment to renters.

The Tenant Bill of Rights in San Antonio stemmed from tenant ideas, grew and sustained momentum because tenants continued to participate, and ultimately thrived because tenants stayed engaged and led with their lived experiences and showed what was important. So it is paramount that Texas Housers’ commitment is long term to continue to engage community with local government and work alongside neighborhood leaders to get their neighbors vocal, active in the process of having a direct impact on their living situations. We hope to see you alongside us as the journey continues.

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