Foundations Buoy a New Movement of Renters’ Activism

KC Tenants
KC Tenants, a nonprofit tenants union, protest at the Tenant Takeover at Ilus W. Davis Park in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 8, 2022. Four years and one pandemic later, KC Tenants is a nonprofit tenants union with a budget that grew almost twentyfold and a track record of advocacy victories. For instance, the group got its bill of rights enacted by the city and is working to make sure all tenants have the right to a lawyer when facing evictions. (Sam Blaufuss via AP)

By SARA HERSCHANDER of The Chronicle of Philanthropy Chronicle of Philanthropy

After years of rising rents, a group of Kansas City, Missouri, renters came together in 2019 to form KC
Tenants, armed with an annual budget of $30,000 and demands for a bill of rights to protect renters
from rising prices, unjust evictions, and landlord abuse.

Four years and one pandemic later, KC Tenants is a nonprofit tenants union with a budget that grew
almost twentyfold and a track record of advocacy victories. For instance, the group got its bill of
rights enacted by the city and is working to make sure all tenants have the right to a lawyer when
facing evictions.

Tenants unions are membership-based groups that advocate for the collective rights of renters, often at
the local level. Many operate similarly to labor unions by charging member dues, offering member
benefits, and appointing tenant leaders.

The progress at KC Tenants comes as a growing number of foundations are working with a revitalized
tenants movement to confront the nation’s housing crisis. The current wave of organizing is the
country’s most significant since the 1970s, when inflation and momentum from the Civil Rights Movement
led to rent strikes across the country and new policies like rent control.

Now rents are rising again, and tenant organizers, who led the fight for pandemic-era eviction
moratoriums, have turned toward new permanent protections for tenants.

The pandemic “exposed a live wire about the lack of protections and vulnerabilities tenants face,” says
Jennifer Angarita, of Funders for Housing and Opportunity, a grantmakers group. After losing their jobs

during the pandemic, many tenants struggled to pay rent and would have lost their homes without
eviction moratoriums.

Angarita says an increase in national grantmakers’ support for local tenant movements is part of a
broader shift in philanthropy that prioritizes support for the people most closely affected by social

In 2021, HouseUS, a national organizing fund that supports local tenants movements, launched with $7.5
million. It received $5.5 million from the Ford Foundation and $2 million from the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation, which has since awarded another $4 million. The fund — which supports KC Tenants, Colorado
Homes for All, the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, and others — has continued to attract money from
other large foundations. It raised more than $4 million in the past three years from grant makers such
as the Oak Foundation, which provided $2 million, and the Melville Charitable Trust, which gave

“Nothing pulls people in quite like momentum,” says Kevin Simowitz, co-director of HouseUS.

The national tenants movement has helped make recent changes across the nation:

— Keep LA Housed, Inquilinos Unidos, and others won Los Angeles City Council approval for protections
that require landlords to provide clear causes, like nonpayment of rent, for evictions and relocation
assistance for tenants displaced by rising rents.

— In New York, Housing Justice for All, a coalition of nonprofits, successfully fought for new laws and
protections such as limitations on security deposit charges and requirements to notify tenants before
making certain rent increases.

— The Miami Workers Center, a tenant collective, won approval for a countywide bill of rights
protecting renters from housing discrimination based on prior evictions and a guarantee they’ll be
notified if a building shifts ownership.

“Communities have been preparing for a moment when they can realize change, and I think we have it
now,” says Meshie Knight, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “I see
philanthropy as being able to contribute to that reimagination of a new and more equitable future.”

During the pandemic, KC Tenants became an advocate for emergency tenant protections, including a
temporary eviction moratorium in the state. The group, with a budget of nearly $600,000 from both local
and national grants, now employs seven full-time staff members plus tenant members who’ve led protests
outside of judges’ homes and courthouses, and pursued more traditional legislative advocacy trying to
keep renters in their homes.

“We were engaging in direct action to shut down evictions by whatever means we could find,” says Tara
Raghuveer, founding director of KC Tenants. “Along the way, we started organizing neighborhood tenant

It’s that kind of nimbleness — and those victories — that persuaded some foundations that tenant unions
should continue their work after the spread of COVID-19 eased.

At Ford, support for tenant groups is part of a shift in thinking about how philanthropy can help
working class and middle class Americans as they seek a place to live. In the past, its housing grants
focused on increasing the quantity of affordable housing through land-use and development efforts. Now,
many of its housing grants go to organizations that advocate for tenants in a broader push for racial and economic justice, says Ethan Frey, Ford’s program officer for civic engagement and government.

He says the foundation’s restructuring emerged from the sentiment that “more work needed to be done to
build political will and make more transformative changes to our housing system.”

While previous waves of tenant organizing were often led by national tenant organizations, local tenant
unions have largely spearheaded the movement in recent years, Frey says. Many groups grew from the ground up during the pandemic, when they began generating momentum for citywide eviction protections.

In 2021, the HouseUS fund began ramping up its support for Missouri tenant movements outside of Kansas
City. With the guidance and financial oversight of KC Tenants, HouseUS has provided $100,000 yearly
since 2021 to help create a nonprofit tenants union in Cape Girardeau in rural southeast Missouri.

It’s been an uphill battle to persuade rural tenants to join the union, says Aaron Lerma, an organizer
leading the campaign. Many tenants were concerned about being blacklisted from renting in the small

However, Lerma says, he’s seeing a growing willingness among residents to help direct what comes next —
and a sense that it might lead to real change.

“That sense of fear has also contributed to a lot of hopelessness in our communities,” Lerma says. “We
have to generate our own hope about what’s possible.”

Lerma spent six months knocking on doors before holding the group’s first meeting in June 2022. At that meeting, tenants shared their priorities for improving housing conditions. Cape Girardeau tenant leaders have been able to build credibility with other residents through policy work and by being their
advocates. For instance, when Cape Girardeau renters are evicted or a landlord refuses to make repairs,
they now have someone to call.

The group recently negotiated an agreement with the town’s inspection-services supervisor to

restructure Cape Girardeau’s code-inspection department. The town plans to hire more inspectors so it
can do more to enforce safe housing standards. Cape Girardeau Tenants, which now has around 60 members
and 10 tenant leaders, is considering what’s next, including the possibility for a tenants bill of

Denise St. Omer is a board member of the Kansas City-based Hadley Project, which provides funding to
community nonprofits, including KC Tenants. The project was an early supporter of KC Tenants before
there was much major foundation funding. She says work done by groups like KC Tenants helped change the

“We have short historical memories, but the rights and privileges that we take for granted now came
about as a result of grassroots organizing that was deeply unpopular at the time,” St. Omer says.
“These are individuals experiencing housing instability. They’re not being invited to participate in
the decision-making process. They have to use their collective power to get a seat at the table.


This article was provided to the Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Sara Herschander is
a reporter at the Chronicle. Email: The AP and the Chronicle receive
support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle
are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit


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