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Syracuse Tenant Union’s Grassroots Efforts Highlight Tenants’ Rights and Landlord Responsibilities The Daily Orange –

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After hearing from homeowners and renters about the scope of key issues in Syracuse, Palmer Harvey founded and co-chaired a housing task force at Southside Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today, where she served as a volunteer for the first time.

As a housing activist and current legislator in Onondaga County, Harvey said conversations with community members have made her increasingly aware of housing issues that go beyond the leadership, including poor conditions, exploitative landlords and an overall lack of awareness of tenants’ rights.

In 2018, Harvey teamed up with Mary Traynor, a former housing attorney at Legal Services of Central New York, to form Syracuse Tenants Union – an organized group of tenants in the city. The new union was inspired by similar organized tenant groups in New York state, she said.

“There’s a lot of non-education — the landlord isn’t going to tell (a tenant) they can call code enforcement,” Harvey said. “Bad landlords have gotten their way because it has been allowed for so long.”

Today, the union hosts several community events highlighting tenants’ rights and advocating for better housing conditions, including the upcoming “Safe Housing for All” rally and march in downtown Syracuse. STU also hosts general meetings and “Know Your Rights” sessions at the North Side Learning Center.

“We believe that tenants are their own best advocates, and that tenants together are stronger than tenants who try to fight for their rights alone,” said Liam Hines, a Syracuse University alumnus who joined the union in 2021.

At a town hall meeting in March, Onondaga County Legislator Maurice “Mo” Brown said only 40% of the county’s renters can afford high-end rental housing, which he said is “as competitive as the New York City housing market.”

Shortly after the union’s formation, housing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the union’s programming to generating awareness campaigns for these concerns, Harvey said. Around that time, Hines, then a graduate student at SU, joined the union as an organizer to “get involved” in the broader community, he said.

In January 2022, the lifting of an eviction moratorium from the state’s pandemic left “renters on the street,” Hines said. Harvey said the union was “switching gears” and beginning to focus on combating housing issues by tackling legislation and tenants’ rights.

Initiatives to help those affected by the pandemic occurred alongside the union’s legislative projects, Harvey said, such as the two-year effort to support a state law allowing tenants to sue their landlords.

Early in his time with the union, Hines and other volunteers searched apartments around the city, gathering community concerns about poor housing conditions and uncooperative landlords, he said.

STU members continue to recruit, speaking to community members about the union’s initiatives and educating them about their rights as tenants.

We believe that tenants are their own best advocates, and that tenants together are stronger than tenants who try to fight for their rights alone.

Liam Hines, STU member

The union’s Know Your Rights meetings and classes also inform tenants of their legal powers, including their right to report problems and code violations without retaliation or eviction by their landlords.

The group also organizes demonstrations with members throughout the city and within specific housing sectors. STU also orchestrates rent strikes, or the refusal of an organized group of tenants to pay rent when a landlord fails to fulfill their side of a lease.

Hines said the union’s main goals are to expand tenants’ rights, improve housing conditions and repairs, lower rents throughout Syracuse and prevent wrongful evictions. The union is currently working to increase the number of landlords in the rental register, a database of rental properties and owners.

“We are trying to make the rental register tougher so that bad landlords face tougher and tougher penalties if they behave in the way they treat their properties,” Harvey said.

In 2022, Central Current reported that according to city data, nearly half of Syracuse’s 9,000 one- and two-family homes were “out of compliance” with the registry — either by violating city codes, failing to meet tax obligations or having an expired subscription. certificate of rental registration.

As the union pushes for legislation to strengthen Syracuse’s rental registry, STU member and organizer Jocelyn Richards said she hopes city and state officials will prioritize supporting local renters’ concerns.

“(Local officials) are supportive and will say, ‘Oh my God, the housing crisis in Syracuse is so bad,’” Richards said. “But then when we present them with a solution, they say, ‘Yes, it won’t work because of this, this and this’ – it’s frustrating.”

Harvey said current Syracuse lawmakers have made a “tremendous improvement” in the city’s housing crisis, but they need to do more to address the treatment of renters. As the union outgrows the “grassroots stage,” organizers are trying to increase membership and sponsors, she said.

“The tenant association has definitely grown, in numbers and experience, at least in the three years I’ve been there,” Hines said. “It was pretty amazing to see.”

Unlike Harvey, Hines said he believes housing problems in Syracuse have worsened since he joined the union. In March, a Zumper report found that between February 2023 and February 2024 in Syracuse, “one-bedroom rents rose 22%” — the highest increase among U.S. cities despite the flattening of national rents, the New York Times reported.

STU’s next event is Saturday’s rally and march, starting at 1 p.m. at Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse. The demonstration has several co-sponsors, including Syracuse’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Citizen’s Action of New York and the Workers’ Center of Central New York.

Protesters will outline housing-related demands for Syracuse elected officials at the meeting, according to the group’s Instagram.

“There are unions in almost every city, and they all look different,” Richards said. “We are not actually a legal personality, we are a basic group. We try to be empowerment-oriented, so we want to help people help themselves.”