Tenant union members pose for a photo after their rally in front of Ocean Management's office. They delivered a signed letter stating they refused the rent increases. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

The Connecticut Tenants Union on Saturday shifted from a more informal group of unions scattered across the state to a formal organization with officers and a constitution, offering new avenues for the group to advocate for statewide change.

Members met Saturday for training and to elect officers. The move opens the door for the group to, among other actions, eventually hire a lobbyist and garner consistent funding for a staff.

“The core basic principle is that people should be able to have stability in their housing, they should be able to afford where they live, not give crazy percentages of their income to their rent and they should have continuity in their community,” said Hannah Srajer, the newly elected president for Connecticut Tenants Union, in an interview Monday.

The group is now able to partner with Connecticut labor unions, and hopes to work together toward goals that benefit workers who are also renters. The tenant union hopes that, through the organization, they can more closely match the landlord groups’ efforts to impact state policy, Srajer said.

“The idea is if we don’t have clear, transparent and accountable membership that’s democratically elected in which it’s very clear who is making decisions and when … then we can’t actually build the type of power that we need to build that matches the organization of the landlord,” she said.

Tenant unions first formed in Connecticut in 2021, beginning in New Haven. Now, about nine have formed around the state, and the group led an effort to introduce limits on annual rent increases during the last legislative session.

The public hearings for the measure were some of the longest and best-attended of the session for the Housing Committee. The proposal, which would have capped annual rent increases at 4% plus the cost of inflation, didn’t get through the committee process.

Renters spoke about poor living conditions, evictions and untenable rent increases.

Organizers have said they plan to push for a similar proposal next year, although legislators are dubious about whether it has the political muster to get through. Some landlords and lawmakers objected to the proposal, saying it would impede on landlords’ rights and would mean some of them can’t pay for repairs and cover other costs associated with providing housing.

The tenants group ratified a constitution in June and convened over the weekend to implement the constitution and elect officers.

Srajer, a New Haven resident and organizer, was elected president. Organizer Luke Melonakos-Harrison, of New Haven, was elected vice-president. Other chapter officers were from New Haven, Hamden, Windsor, Windham and Putnam, among other cities.

Tenant unions have existed throughout history as a collective bargaining tool for renters to push for changes such as better living conditions or lower rents. Unions got more attention nationwide during the pandemic, particularly in New York City where tenants organized to fight for rent cancellations.

It’s a similar model to labor unions, which find strength in numbers. Experts say that the unions tend to do better with government support. In Connecticut, landlords aren’t required to engage with unions, although state law does offer six months of protection from retaliation to tenants who unionize.

New Haven allows tenants to issue complaints about unfair rent increases to the Fair Rent Commission as a unit, increasing the union’s power. If landlords don’t recognize the union, organizers have said they’ll more frequently turn to rent strikes.

Connecticut has a process by which tenants can pay rent into the court if conditions are bad at an apartment. At least one tenant union in Connecticut is on a rent strike, protesting problems with lead dust and moisture getting into the building.

The union’s new constitution says members will commit to initiatives including rent strikes, grassroots campaigns, collective bargaining, mutual aid and education, among other actions.

“To confront the housing crisis, the climate crisis, and the many other crises we face, we must build collective power across all lines of difference, unified by a shared commitment to justice, dignity, and solidarity,” the union’s new constitution says. “Only then will we have the capacity to create networks of mutual support to empower the most vulnerable among us.”

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.