By Alex Drusda and Noah Cote
“‘Well, what are you going to do? It’s college!’”
This is a fairly common response that Steven DeLucry, outgoing president of Drexel Socialists, receives when canvassing for the Student Tenants Union. For the past year, establishing and growing the Student Tenants Union has been Drexel Socialists’ foremost project. Their goals? Empower student renters and inform students about the issues tenants face.
The Student Tenants Union began in June 2018, as a project of Drexel Socialists. While canvassing for the Union, student organizers encountered Rebekka, a German exchange student trapped in her lease with University Crossings, a private student housing provider. UCross allowed Rebekka to sublet an apartment, and assured her that she would only be responsible for three months of rent. However, once the subletter dropped contact with Rebekka, UCross held her responsible for the remaining rent. In the span of a month, the Student Tenants Union righted this wrong.
The Drexel Socialists’ Student Tenants Union responded by delivering a letter of demands to UCross’ leasing office. The letter demanded that UCross release Rebekka from her unfair subleasing agreement. A few days later, the Union returned to the leasing office, flyering to let students know what had happened to Rebekka. By the end of June, UCross buckled: Rebekka was released from the lease without having to pay the additional rent and associated fees.
In a different fight, a student-tenant experienced difficulties paying rent and repeatedly tried, in vain, to contact management. After two months, this tenant received an eviction notice, demanding that they leave within the next five days. The Union managed to push this date back and help the tenant find new housing. However, the tenant later learned from their former roommates that the developer mailed details regarding a lawsuit.
The Student Tenants Union spent the next few months fighting this injustice. Through public protests, legal support, and negative review-a-thons, the tenant managed to secure a deal: the Union would scale back its negative press campaign, and the tenant would only be charged roughly half of the rent they initially owed.
Base-Building at the Student Level
As DeLucry expressed, it can be difficult to get students interested in tenants’ struggles. Although most students are tenants, many envision their roles as “renters” to be a transient stage in their lives.
Fortunately, simple conversations with students can raise awareness that student housing issues are a form of landlord-tenant conflict. University Crossings, for example, is one of several “University-Affiliated Housing” buildings owned by American Campus Communities (ACC). If you are a student at Drexel, dealing with ACC is largely unavoidable. Drexel is engaged in a public-private partnership with ACC, which forces non-commuting sophomores to live in ACC housing.
In addition to rent being hugely inflated (rent starts at $849 for a two-bed, one-bath apartment shared by four tenants), ACC’s properties come with a myriad of drawbacks. ACC requires students to pay a $250 non-refundable application fee–with no actual guarantee of housing. Their LGBTQ policies are not up to Drexel’s standards: they require parental permission for adult students to enter co-ed leasing forms, undermining the autonomy of adult students.
Given this state of affairs, many students leap at the opportunity to talk to the Union about ACC.
“‘Oh no, we know everything going on [with American Campus Communities], it’s bad, we hate it,’” is another popular response, according to Ariel Ge, Vice President of Drexel Socialists. “[We] just build a huge conversation around that. Instead of making it feel like a transactional, robotic approach, trying to work with them is the most beneficial way to get more people involved.”
Collective action has provided the Student Tenants Union with two clear examples of tenant power on Drexel’s campus. Organizing around these victories and a general disdain for ACC, the Union only stands to grow.
Contextualizing Tenant Rights
What differentiates a student tenant from a tenant?
Not much. DeLucry clarifies that contrary to the beliefs of some students, renting is not a phase unique to college: “This is life. A lot of people are going to have student debt for life, so this is the time to build this movement, while you have this power and leverage.” Students are paying tuition; they are in a better place to negotiate with universities that need them to turn profit.
Students are part of the working class. Many students work part-time or full-time throughout their education. Upon accumulating student debt, it is difficult for most to surmount this obstacle. While it is easy to write off student tenants as gentrifiers, this prevents the solidarity that could be formed amongst tenants across the city.
Consequently, the Student Tenants Union acts with this bigger picture in mind. When the Union marched on UCross’s leasing office, they brought the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) banner. Several members of Drexel Socialists are also involved with PTU.
So, it’s not just college. What are you going to do? The Student Tenants Union asks this question of their peers. By working to aid students in need, and preparing them for the realities of landlord-tenant conflict, the Union is strengthening tenant power in Philadelphia.