Boulder's Tenant Movement:
From Radical to Dormant

Boulder Community Network | Housing Center
Last Modified On: Tuesday, November 4, 1997 - 14:30:07

By: Mark Fearer *
(This article appeared in the Boulder Weekly on Aug. 15th, 1996.)

More than 1,000 Boulder tenants gather to call for a city-wide rent strike to protest out-of-control rents and lousy housing conditions. A fantasy? No, history - in the late '60s. You'd never know looking around today that Boulder was the scene of the most intense battles for tenant rights between the Mississippi and California.

During the height of the youth movement, the Boulder Tenants Union was born in 1969, amidst a growing resentment over high rents and terrible conditions.

During the summer of '69, the CU student government (then called ASUC) housing commissioner said that his commission had found rental prices 10 to 20 percent higher in Boulder than anywhere in Colorado. This was years before the 2 percent slow growth initiative (the Danish Plan) had passed, which has been blamed for high housing prices.

Although the study was well documented, it was hardly new. In 1922, CU President George Norlin "lashed out at profiteering landlords, sensing students were being raked over the coals," according to the Daily Camera. Boulder landlords, as in most college towns, had always charged higher rents, because of the shortage of affordable housing for decades, allowing them to charge what the market bears.

But now students were ready to do something about it, emboldened by their new found power of protest and action. When BTU formed in mid-September of 1969, it was only the third tenants union in the country.

The Colorado Daily editorialized, "The leaders of the nascent organization hope to gather a large number of people who will make a commitment to withhold their rent from landlords who are charging unreasonable prices and offering ridiculous conditions to those forced to pay those prices." The newspaper ran stories almost every day for several months about BTU, evictions, rent strikes from around the country or tenants' plights with landlords, often urging students to go to BTU meetings.

The newly formed tenant union attracted 400 people to CU in the UMC Ballroom at its first meeting. By its third gathering, 1,000 people crowded the ballroom and voted for an all-city rent strike. Unlike subsequent tenant activism in Boulder, many in and out of BTU felt the tenant union should act as a collective bargaining agent for city rents as a whole, and they recruited hundreds of members on that premise.

Although there was enthusiasm to do a city-wide rent strike, the fledgling organization decided to focus on one of the largest landlords in town - known then as University Townhouse Corporation. BTU concentrated on its newly built apartment complex at 11th and Pleasant, now the Campus Townhouses. BTU and the tenants wanted lower rents, compliance with the housing code and a stop to the practice of collecting a damage deposit and last month's rent. In October, 160 tenants took part in the strike, refusing to pay May's rent (the last month, which was due by Oct. 1). There were a number of pickets at the University Townhouse office on the Hill, and demands for BTU to negotiate on behalf of the residents. Though the corporation responded by announcing it would let tenants out of their leases early and only keep half of the deposit, most of the 160 struck anyway. The strike lasted more than a month, but through continued threats of eviction, most decided to pay their rent. BTU won a victory when the court refused to evict three of the tenants, but by December, the strike had fizzled.

Although the strike was not ultimately successful, a fire had been ignited, though the problems of high rents and poor conditions didn't go away. Even defenders of the free enterprise system attacked the profit taking. In 1970, the University Republicans (now called College Republicans) put out an uncharacteristic position paper. "We feel BTU is good and has fulfilled a function as an essential first step." They felt that new apartment buildings had poor construction and maintenance, and therefore "this Task Force urges a continued rent and/or general strike of these newer developments."

Additionally, they echoed previous calls for a boycott of some of the landlords. "It should be the responsibility of the University Off-Campus Housing Office to not only blacklist those places that do not meet the building code and health standards, but those that use the University student population for mere profit rather than be equally concerned about decent and up-to-par facilities."

According to Cyndy Calkins, a later historian of those tumultuous times, "The rent strike had failed. BTU then turned to increased tenant services and counseling. But much of the excitement of BTU was gone and with it, its large following. By 1971, BTU was inoperative."

In 1972, 18-year-old students finally got the vote, and they voted in several progressive councilmembers, shifting Boulder politics further to the left than any other time before or after. In late '72, the tenant movement was revitalized with a different set of mostly student leaders and the advent of the Boulder County Tenants Organization, whose name reflected a broader geographic and political appeal. BCTO concentrated more on counseling services at first, and in fact disavowed their predecessors' tactics.

"BCTO has no connection with the old tenant's union," BCTO member Sharon Niederman told the Colorado Daily. "Our tactics are not rent strikes, but dialogue between landlords and tenants, action on legal information and trying to bring about legislation." While the new group primarily focused on counseling, it also successfully pushed for passage of a rental licensing program and a stronger housing code.

Although BCTO started off with a far smaller membership and financial base than BTU, it had an important ally - progressive city councilman Tim Fuller. BCTO and Fuller worked together to develop a housing program that included a rent "stabilization" proposal, that is, rent control, which they made public in October 1973. They had done extensive research in conjunction with the CU Economics Department, and among their conclusions found, "Current housing market conditions and rough projections of the future indicate a continued worsening of Boulder's ability to provide low to moderate income housing unless municipal policies change."

A petition drive was launched to convince the rest of the city council to pass the rent-control proposal, and more than 7,000 signatures were turned in - but to no avail. The council ignored the findings and proposals. For the next five to six years, BCTO continued to counsel tenants (and landlords), fought for standardized leases, organized tenants in apartment buildings and worked with the Daily to put out the infamous and very helpful "Ten Worst Landlords" list, based on BCTO's records.

But by the early '80s BCTO became a government-funded organization that did mostly tenant counseling - and little activism. In 1981, a new crop of tenant activists (non-students) started the Renters Rights Project, whose sole purpose was tenant activism.

Chris Goodwin, one of the founders of the project, said it started because "We saw the need for an organization to defend tenants from the abuse landlords were heaping on everyone. Landlords charge what they can get away with. They call that 'what the market will bear,'" he said with a laugh. As they started organizing tenants and pushing for better local tenant protection, the renters project merged with BCTO, and the Boulder Tenants Union was reborn. BTU also continued doing tenant and landlord counseling. As a whole, the city council consistently resisted calls by BTU to pass better tenant laws. But only showing up en masse to council meetings, along with petition drives, got their attention. Throughout the early to mid '80s, BTU successfully pressured the city council to pass ordinances that ended discrimination against tenants with children, required a written lease and a copy for the tenant and amended the housing code to include weatherization. It also got a Boulder Model Lease drafted and recommended by the city. Their crowning success was an election victory in 1985, which gave 5.5 percent interest on rental deposits to tenants - over the objection of city council and landlords.

But not all were victories. BTU tried and failed to get the city council to pass laws protecting tenants' privacy, mandatory usage of the Boulder Model Lease, protecting tenants from no-cause eviction, a warranty of habitability (allowing rent to be deducted for needed repairs), a Housing Commission and rent control.

When asked to pass a tenant reform package that included several of the above proposals, the council chose instead to create the Landlord Tenant Mediation Project, now Community Mediation Services. The city council felt they were being consistent with their belief that landlord and tenant problems are best worked out on a one-on-one basis, rather than by passing more laws. However with few laws to protect tenants, landlords had fewer incentives or pressure to mediate problems in the first place.

Rent control was of course the issue that always got people's attention. In 1981, the last time the tenants movement tried to put it on the ballot, landlords got so panicked, they got the state legislature to ban it anywhere in Colorado, before Boulder voters could make their own mind up. Needless to say, the issue died, although the need didn't.

Landlords, naturally, didn't sit idly by during times of tenant rights resurgence. They organized themselves in response and fought virtually every proposal, even the right to a written copy of the lease. Any hint of uppity tenants will again undoubtedly unite them like nothing else. BTU shut its doors in 1987, leaving Colorado with no tenant unions. Goodwin blamed a "lack of tenant involvement - there weren't enough people to keep the organization going. People weren't motivated to get involved. I'm not sure why - maybe apathy, cynicism or a sense of powerlessness. The need still existed."

A brief flirtation in 1991 with a rent control petition by some CU students caused some stirring, but it quickly fizzled.

With the increased talk of affordable housing, as rents continue to rise well above inflation, the times are ripe for another bout of tenant activism.

That Was Then, This is Now

Boulder Tenants Union first arose out of the anger created by high rents and poor housing conditions. How are things now? Well, the good news is that there are fewer housing code violations now, with better enforcement than 25 years ago.

The bad news is high rents are getting higher. In the last six years, inflation has gone up about 24 percent - but median rents have increased twice as much, by 53 percent, according to Boulder's 1995 Citizen Survey. More bad news: a recent Boulder County Housing Needs Assessment report concluded, "Only 26 percent of the free-market rental units in the area are affordable for low-income households."

But Tom Smith, Boulder County Apartment Association president, admits that inflation is not the major factor in rent increases, but rather a direct result of what the market will bear. "Vacancy rates are what drives them," he said, but "it all balances out. 1990-93 was a real catch-up time," when rents increased more. He doesn't think rent increases are a problem at the moment, with a 5-6 percent vacancy rate (in Dec. 1995). And why are they so high? "It's the rental prices - people are deciding they can't afford to live in Boulder."

But Dale Severance, director of the CU Off Campus Housing Office, couldn't find any evidence to support a flattening or drop in rents. In fact, the numbers show the opposite. In a survey his office did of rents between April and November in 1995, 31 apartment complexes out of 50 raised their rents - none decreased.

"I find it real hard to believe there are a significant number of landlords who are lowering the rent," responded Chris Goodwin, former BTU member. He said rents are still outrageously high, and rent control, although banned by state law, is "absolutely needed."

Smith also blamed too many laws. "One thing that factors in all this are the regulations that go along with being in the city of Boulder, like the rental licensing program, which (while good) drives up the cost and is passed on to the renter." He also cited having to pay a 5-1/4 percent interest on deposits, but admitted that overall, "The costs aren't very significant." But he didn't explain why rents were still higher in pre-regulation days. And that doesn't explain why rents are going up all over the county - where there are no regulations for rentals - at almost the same rate as Boulder's.

The future holds no outlook for more affordable rents or better tenant protection. It appears landlords will continue to charge "what the market will bear," regardless of how may renters are driven out of town by sundown.

* Mark Fearer was the Director of the Boulder Tenants Union from 1981-1986. He now writes for local and national publications.

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