Tenant organizations take many forms and reflect diverse goals. An attorney’s role varies with the nature and objectives of the tenant organization. Before you advise a tenant organization, you need to understand its particular needs and how to meet them.
There’s a wide range of tenant organizations, each with differing goals and legal needs. Generally, tenant organizations fall into two main groups:
- Ad hoc and short-lived tenant organizations. An example of this type of organization is a handful of tenants in the same building with a landlord who won’t provide enough heat, or a larger group of tenants fighting a rent increase with a rent strike and fearing mass eviction. Although the size and complexity of the problems facing these tenant groups may vary, their primary objectives are short-term, i.e., to resolve the immediate problem in their favor, and then disband and resume their normal lives. Class action lawsuits have become a fairly common tool to achieve these tenant objectives.
- Broader, more permanent tenant organizations. Some groups want to form a tenant union to deal with the landlord on behalf of all its members and to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that establishes binding procedures for resolving disputes with the landlord. Other groups consist of tenants from several different buildings who have joined together to deal with neighborhood or citywide problems such as high rents or deteriorating housing.
The attorney’s role varies based on the type of tenant organization involved. For example, if the group has only short-term goals, the attorney’s responsibilities won’t vary significantly from the traditional attorney’s role in representing an individual client: to handle litigation, negotiate with the landlord or the landlord’s attorney, and try to resolve the underlying dispute in the tenants’ favor while protecting the tenancies.
If the group has long-term goals, the attorney should think more carefully about an appropriate role. For example:
- If the group’s objectives may be achieved more quickly or easily through political solutions (such as rent control) than legal ones, litigation might help publicize and dramatize issues, even though it might not directly achieve the group’s goals.
- If the group isn’t well established and needs to develop respected tenant leaders, the attorney probably should advise the leaders privately and present a low profile at group meetings and negotiations. Playing a traditional attorney’s role can sometimes do more harm than good to a budding tenant organization.
Many groups come to an attorney without giving sufficient thought to the type of tenant organization that the group wants to be or to the full range of goals that it wants to achieve. It’s important that you urge such tenants to convey their thoughts and decisions on these questions so you can devise a strategy that will serve the group’s interests.
Many of the issues involved with counseling tenants, including those relating to tenant organizations, are covered in CEB’s California Landlord-Tenant Practice, chap 5.
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