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Towards New Alliances: Planners and the Tenants Movement

By Ian Van der Merwe

In the US, the prevailing planning policy is to build, build, build, and where local planners are yet to buy in, politicians are happy to step in. In recent years, urban planning has seen the “real estate state” come into its own. Backed by planners aligned with a real estate industry intent on squeezing every dollar of profit it can find from urban land, every planning issue from housing affordability, to environmental crises, to traffic congestion, finds its answer in supporting new urban development. This new drive to urbanize has eclipsed the old race to build a tax base from drive-throughs and big box stores—now upzoning is the name of the game and economic development through rising land values is the prize. As planners cycle through zoning change after zoning change, the balance of forces in cities swings ever closer to real estate. Re-solidifying urbanism’s reliance on the financial sector, this urban economic growth finds profit in the very same neighborhoods real estate has long decried as “hazardous” for investment. But what is good for the landowners, construction companies, architecture firms, and property managers is rarely good for either existing or future residents.

While some planners invoke “supply-and-demand” to argue that deregulating development actually helps renters and housing affordability in general, reality seldom bears this out. Despite another banner year for pro-developer planning policies, rents continue to soar. In Utah, in lieu of any real decrease in the cost of housing, landlords and property managers have turned to offering short-term concessions to new tenants, after which the absurdly high rents return. In Salt Lake County, the metro core of Utah, the median rent climbed from $1,015 to $1,440 between 2017 and 2022, a 42% increase over just 5 years. The homeowner market has similarly erupted, propelling Utah to 6th place for most expensive states to own a home in 2023. And all this while development-apologists warn of a looming reduction in new developments even as cities continue to upzone at breakneck speed.

The current discourse surrounding development rarely strays from the NIMBY-YIMBY dichotomy, with the specter of the white-upper-class-homeowner-NIMBY conjured up whenever critiques of new development emerge. The pro-development position has even tried to lay claim to environmentalism, with developers and their boosters alike offering greenwashed visions of a city rebuilt by them. But there is a growing force in many cities that is charting a different path for urban development and may hold the promise of a different kind of planning.

The tenant movement has re-established itself in recent years, spurred on by the looming threat of mass evictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. With tenants unions emerging in cities across the US, these organizations tap into a long history of progressive organizing to build a new urban politics from the social position of the working-class tenant. Expressing an everyday politics rooted in the experiences of tenants, this movement has set goals ranging from instituting the right for tenants to have legal counsel in housing disputes, expanding rent controls (including nationwide), and even decommodifying housing altogether.

While pro-developer groups attempt to shape local, State, and Federal-level planning initiatives, tenants groups have also become increasingly engaged in these processes. This engagement can be seen clearly in Kansas City, where the tenants union KC Tenants, founded in 2019, has been gaining strength and increasingly participating in municipal politics, including planning decisions. In 2023, the union successfully rallied to oppose tax-breaks for a new apartment complex led by developer Mac Properties, who has already been accused of driving gentrification in the city. The opposed development was framed as a Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) project and the tax-breaks would have been provided by the now-dissolved development wing of RideKC, Kansas City’s public transit provider. But despite their requests for preferential treatment, the project included no “affordable” units, and through the tax-breaks it had requested, would also under-contribute to public services like schools, leading KC Tenants to ally with Kansas City Public Schools in this fight. This victory was followed by another successful campaign in 2024 against a proposed sales tax increase meant to support the renovation of a stadium and construction of a new one, both privately owned facilities. Accurately identifying the tax as regressive, placing a greater burden on working class residents for the benefit of the billionaires who own the stadium, KC Tenants were able to successfully rally voters to reject the tax despite being out financed 40-to-1 ($6M for the tax vs. $150K against). Their opposition to the tax was not rooted in any opposition to the sports teams or the stadiums-as-such, but instead the contribution of $2 billion of public funds to facilitate private profit, all in the context of the housing crisis KC Tenants was created to confront. Alongside these victories, KC Tenants also made its first foray into municipal elections, establishing a political arm, KC Tenants Power, and endorsing 6 candidates for city council, 3 of whom were elected. The organization characterizes this move into electoral politics as building “governing power” for tenants in the city:  “invest[ing] in our communities and divest[ing] from the systems and structures that harm us.” This politics is further outlined in a People’s Platform which centers Housing Affordability, Housing Conditions, Public Safety, Economic Justice, Transit, and Climate. The successes of the tenants movement in building governing power rooted in the interests of working-class tenants has tremendous implications for planners.

But where KC Tenants doesn’t call out the planning discipline directly, in Los Angeles, a member of the LA Tenants Union does. Taking aim at the city’s planning efforts in working-class neighborhoods in LA, Tracy Rosenthal, in an op-ed for the LA Times, ties decreasing transit ridership to the displacement of working-class transit users through rising housing costs due to unaffordable TOD projects. Understanding the “economic revitalization” occurring in neighborhoods adjacent to transit as causing this displacement, the author succinctly provides planners our mandate in this fight: “we need to establish a new common-sense planning policy. We must prioritize tenants, not the supply of housing units.” Contrary to what is today seen as “common-sense planning policy,” these tenant groups provide a more grounded perspective of urbanism, calling out the shortcomings of reductive, economic growth-based arguments, and their role in undercutting funding for public services like education and housing. Instead, tenants and tenant organizations see the city from the viewpoint of the people who everyday live and work in the spaces and systems we plan. In matters of housing, transportation, and safety, planning fails to grapple seriously with the inequality and harm experienced in cities, and is instead seemingly more interested in incentivizing new market-rate 5-over-1’s on every block. Backed by the power of tenants, planning could stand as a force for good in our cities, redirected the planning practice from lining developers pockets and upholding class society, to meeting the needs of the very people who make our cities what they are.

Today, planning circles are dominated by pro-developer voices—from our local APA newsletters to our university planning programs and workplaces. But as tenants continue to organize and confront landlords, developers, and the capitalist urbanism they create, planners will have to choose what their priorities are; will they continue to support developers, landlords, and the real estate industry, overseeing the creation of an increasingly unequal city? Or will they support the working-class tenants organizing to oppose that status quo? Planners have work-based knowledge which could provide insight into the highly-technical sphere of urban development. We should use this knowledge to support tenants unions in our cities and beyond, offering our knowledge and skills to build a new urban politics able to take on the real estate state and make our cities, and our work, more just.

Ian Van der Merwe is a planner in the Salt Lake Valley.




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