Skip to content

Emancipatory Horizons in Tenant Organizing


Tara Raghuveer (@taraghuveer) is the founding director of KC Tenants, as well as the Home Guarantee Campaign Director at People’s Action.

This post is part of a symposium on non-reformist reforms. Read the rest of the posts here.

** ** **

On a cold Saturday in January, KC Tenants, the citywide tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri, received a call from the public school district. Teachers at Gladstone Elementary School in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood reported that a set of buildings near the school, home to several students, had lost heat.

Sofia, a young mom of four, met KC Tenants at the property on North Lawn Avenue when we went to assess the situation. She spoke English, but almost all the other adults at the property did not. The tenants were Burmese refugees and Mexican immigrants, most of whom had been there for years, paying $350/month for modest, dilapidated two-bedroom apartments. Sofia walked door-to-door with a KC Tenants organizer, interpreting for her neighbors and gathering information. By evening, KC Tenants issued a public demand for accountability from the landlord. The Kansas City Star, the public radio station, and the local TV news covered the event. The City’s Health Department provided a warming bus. On Sunday, the union collected supplies and food for the tenants. On Monday, the landlord showed his face, disgraced, and fixed the heat.

Warm in their homes, the tenants at North Lawn were triumphant, but celebrations were short-lived. Within a week, the property sold to a New Jersey landlord (it had been under contract before the heat incident). Weeks later, the new landlord sent all the tenants 30-day notices, presenting them with two options: renew their leases for $1200/month, or leave.


The tenants gathered to determine next steps. As the sun set over a meeting held on the grass outside the buildings, Suban, an elder Burmese tenant, declared, “We can’t go. We won’t go.” This became the core demand of the ensuing campaign: WE WON’T GO / ငါတို့မသွားဘူး။ / NO NOS IREMOS. Suban knew the landlord would flip the property, providing bare minimum upgrades, and extracting 300% returns from higher-income tenants. He knew that wasn’t right. Suban’s neighbors shared the conviction that their lives were worth more than their landlord’s profits, and they set out to save their homes.

In the weeks that followed, the tenants sent demands to their new landlord. They hosted City Council members onsite, gave interviews to local reporters, held a rally with hundreds of neighbors, and convened on the grass to update and encourage one another. By April 1, their 30 days had come and gone. The tenants needed to escalate. We tracked down the landlord’s cell phone number from an email he had sent to City Council when he was pursuing incentives to rehab buildings in the same neighborhood. Responding to a call to action from KC Tenants, hundreds of neighbors texted him. The landlord responded to only one message, from the vice principal at Gladstone Elementary. It wasn’t much, but it was an opening. She set up a conversation between KC Tenants and the landlord, and we spent two hours on the phone with him on a Monday evening in early April, listening for any opportunity to negotiate.

The landlord talked in circles, explaining how difficult his business is, how inflation works, how supply chain issues challenged his profit margins. He insisted that he did not intend to change the character of the neighborhood, but had no answer when pressed about where he expected these tenants to move. “The lowest I can go is $850,” he said, “Maybe you can find them vouchers.” What he suggested was impossible. The tenants couldn’t pay $850, and the landlord knew well that the local waiting list for vouchers includes more than 17,000 families. The conversation was mostly useless, but the landlord’s glib suggestion made visible the tiniest foothold.

KC Tenants called the Housing Authority, the City Manager, and members of City Council, seeking any and all ideas about how to keep the tenants housed. Finally, we identified a solution. The City Manager had a discretionary fund that could be used to subsidize rents for the tenants in the North Lawn apartments. KC Tenants negotiated a deal: The tenants would pay $400/month to move into newly renovated units across the street, in a building owned by the same landlord. The City would chip in $450/month per unit, and, because of the public subsidy, the landlord would be on the hook for a set of tenant protections, including rent controls and no evictions. The agreement would hold for at least two years.

On a Saturday in early May, the tenants emerged from their homes, some women with platters balanced on their heads, and set up for a party. They had invited their friends from surrounding neighborhoods. To the sounds of Bollywood dance tracks and cumbia, the neighbors shared Burmese noodles and tacos al pastor. Suban gave a TV interview accompanied by Ro, the camera-shy interpreter. Fists raised, the group took a picture under a banner that read WE WON’T GO. The kids played soccer, yelping and scattering across the lawn that had hosted tenant meetings for months.

By August the landlord completed renovations on the new apartments. KC Tenants recruited leaders to help with the move, hauling mattresses and shelves and boxes across the street for hours. The same evening, the tenants signed new leases, with the city agreement stapled to the back. Two weeks later, the kids ran down the block for their first day of school in the new school year.


In tenant organizing, stories like this one are not particularly unique, and they are not world-shifting. There is nothing revolutionary about paying a landlord $850/month. The system that commodifies our homes won’t be toppled by eight families settling into rehabbed units. With that said: The victory at the apartments on North Lawn was a victory within the world as it is, but the victory was only possible through, and was informed by, a vision for the world as it should be.

Emancipatory horizons are intuitive to the people most harmed by the regime of racial capitalism. The North Lawn tenants needed places to live. They could have resigned themselves to moving, or somehow figured out how to pay triple the rent. Instead, they committed to stay. In doing so, they called into question a system that treats their lives like line items in a New Jersey landlord’s budget. They insisted on their future, on their terms, in their homes. Their rejection of the options presented to them, originally a reflection of their desperation, became an expression of their power.

In the end, the North Lawn victory was about what was won, how it was won, and what it made possible.

A win like this one might be written off as a very minor intervention within a very major system of violence, maybe not worth the effort. But material victories matter. Life changed for eight families: Jacob and the other kids continued on at their beloved school. Artemio got a unit on the first floor, facing the street, so he can get picked up for dialysis. Asi Mar can count on her neighbors for childcare. 

The North Lawn tenants secured their homes by forming a tenant union. In the world as it is, the landlord-tenant dynamic exists primarily between all-powerful, faceless legal entities and powerless individuals. The tenant union challenges that paradigm, introducing the organized collective. The tenants transformed, learning an irrevocable lesson about what is possible together, impossible alone. The tenants’ conditions felt within their control, maybe for the first time ever. The North Lawn tenants aren’t just secure in their homes, they are connected to their neighbors, and to their tenant union.

In exercising their collective power, the tenants also opened new political possibilities. In response to the tenants’ demand, the city took unprecedented action, intervening in the commonplace violence of displacement with public resources, creating and using the leverage to secure protections for the tenants. Perhaps the most profound outcome of the North Lawn organizing is the victories yet to come, born from a reconceived role for the state.

The tenants’ demand – WE WON’T GO – was basic but, in that, it was radical. For a minute, the city had to stop and think: Why must tenants leave on a landlord’s whim? Where were they supposed to go? What is a tenant’s worth in their neighborhood? In their city? Does the tenant have a right to a home? Might they have a right to stay? This questioning led to the North Lawn tenants’ victory, and it guides us to a better world, one where a tenant’s worth is not predicated on their ability to pay rent.


We envision a world where everyone has a home. The vision is big and bold, on purpose. It will require a fundamental restructuring of society, away from land and wealth for the few. If we are to get there, we must commit ourselves to campaigns that take us steps in that direction.

What are presented as answers to the housing crisis often simply entrench the power of landlords over capital, the economy, and our homes. What is passed off as harm reduction often (almost always) amounts to a bigger role for the market, a smaller role for government, and diminished power for tenants. COVID-19 rental assistance was one such “reformist reform,” providing hundreds of billions in federal aid during the first years of the pandemic. Tenants were forced to apply for checks that they turned around and paid to their landlords. The system took forever, some landlords refused the money, others took it and then evicted tenants anyway. If landlords had to apply for the money, and if the money had come with conditions, or if the government had otherwise intervened to protect tenants from their rent obligation during this time, this could have been a game-changer, a durable intervention in the market as we know it today, a rebalancing of power. Instead, rental assistance was a no-strings bailout to landlords, creating the conditions for the most precarious position for tenants in recent history while landlords boast record profits.

Sofia, Suban, and their neighbors organized like their lives depended on it, because they did. But their urgency in their struggle for their homes did not come at the exclusion of clarity about a larger fight, about their power, about the world they deserve.

In Pedagogy of Hope, Paulo Friere asks the question: “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we cannot do today?” We need to know where we want to go if we hope to get there. We also need to navigate the steps between, a delicate limbo between the world as it is and the world as it should be.