KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When housing insecurity is your reality, individual decisions come down to survival.
For LaTonya Brown, surviving meant renting a business space to live in when an eviction on her record prevented her from getting an apartment.
"You couldn't tell me what to do with my business space. I could be working at night. I can be working during the day. We have to make it out here. I'm here to be honest, that's what I did," she said.
Just surviving was what LaTonya believed for most of her life was all that she could do in a system she saw no way of changing.
"It literally is like a record in your head. I mean, you can't, it won't let you go against it," she said.
She lives in Kansas City, Missouri, but she's facing the same obstacles as many renters and housing-insecure people are: rents have increased an average of 17% since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from the CoStar Group.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition says that in no county, a person making federal, state or county minimum wage can afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment.
LaTonya's lived experience may have shown her she couldn’t change the system how it is, but activism and a group of like-minded people have helped her find her voice.
"I just think that everybody should have a chance to be able to have a home, a decent, affordable home," she said.
"We essentially work to make sure that everybody here in Kansas City has a safe, accessible, and affordable home," said Brandon Henderson.
Henderson is an organizer with KC Tenants, a tenants union that formed in 2019 with the goal of changing policies for the benefit of renters, the same group LaTonya joined. If you haven’t heard of a “tenant union” you’re not alone.
"I think like type of organizing that we're doing here in Kansas City and that's, you're starting to see in other places in the country right now is new and, and different," explained Henderson.
A tenant union isn’t a union in the way a labor union is, with regulations and bargaining power, but it’s more of a collective of politically active renters who feel as though organization and activism is their best option to change the housing system in their favor.
"Very quickly, people joining KC Tens made the jump from realizing it's not, what can I do? It's what can we do, right? There's a strength and numbers element to it," said Mason Andrew Kilpatrick, a fellow organizer.
Tenant unions can be found in about half the states, like in California, Arizona, New York and Massachusetts, and have been gaining momentum since the pandemic in advocating for renters’ rights.
KC Tenants have thrown their canvassing power behind several measures that have been passed that they say favor, including the right to a lawyer in eviction court and a $50 million no-tax increase bond that goes towards what they say is truly affordable housing, meaning rent there would be 30% of the area median home income. That measure passed recently with about 70% of the vote.
"We have the power to get things done and the only thing holding us back from getting more things done is getting more people to acknowledge their own power and shed some of that learned hopelessness that we're all kind of instructed to buy into," said Henderson.
Changing the high price of rent is difficult and, right now, there isn’t a clear path to get there yet, but what tenant unions seem to be proving is that the system can be changed, bit by bit. For people like LaTonya, changing that “learned hopelessness” into hope is something worth fighting for.
"I just want everybody to know that things can change," she said.