Imagine this: mice scurry around your kitchen cupboards in search for food. The scent of sewage fills your house for days on end. Your water suddenly shuts off. And all of this is your landlord’s fault.

It’s 1970 and the tenants of 708 E. Kingsley Street didn’t imagine this; they lived it.

Fortunately, these students could turn to the Ann Arbor Tenants Union for help. The AATU mobilized masses of tenants to picket against the offending landlord. In part, holding landlords accountable for tenants’ rights was what the AATU did from its inception in 1969 until its untimely demise in 2003. It provided an invaluable service to tenants across Ann Arbor — student and non-student alike.

Today, student tenants often recognize when their rights as tenants are violated and look for resolutions. However, these ideas fall on deaf ears. They lack a vehicle to make them a reality. They may not realize it, but they need a powerful advocate.

The AATU was that powerful advocate. It burst on the Ann Arbor scene in 1969 as part of what became a two-year strike against the city’s slumlords. More than 1,500 tenants around the city rose up in opposition to poor living conditions and withheld their rent. Collectively, they sent their rent money to an escrow account in Windsor, Ontario. Unless the landlords got their act together, they wouldn’t see a dime of rent from strikers.

Increasingly, the AATU amassed victories. It helped numerous tenants reach out-of-court settlements in their favor. It gained recognition from landlords as a force to be reckoned with and became the sole negotiator for tenants. It lobbied for and won city ordinances and state laws that secured tenants’ rights.

Moreover, the AATU provided resources and services to tenants that catered to their needs. It taught them to object to illegal cleaning fees and to withhold rent if their landlord failed to fix problems. It warned tenants of landlords that historically treated tenants and their housing poorly. It reviewed tenants’ leases to ensure tenants understood them and landlords followed the law. When all else failed, they helped dog down landlords until they returned security deposits.

All of this is gone. In its place, student tenants are left with the University’s Student Legal Services. While its legal advice is sometimes helpful, that’s all it can provide to these tenants. Along with tenants’ other needs, SLS fails to meet the biggest one: defending their rights.

Increasingly, tenants’ rights are under siege. Landlords constantly assail the right to affordable housing. When the University — Ann Arbor’s largest landlord — buys up land, such as Blimpy Burger, its not-for-profit status diminishes the tax base in Ann Arbor and thus, through increased taxes, drives up the rent for everyone else in the city. Meanwhile, developers erect 14-story high-rise apartment buildings that cause rents in the vicinity to rise higher yet.

On another front, landlords, such as those in the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association, crusade against the early lease-signing ordinance. The ordinance protects freshmen and current tenants from landlords that attempt to sign the next lease as the current lease starts. Aside from a few brave souls, there is no organized opposition against this effort. It’s merely another instance in which tenants’ rights are left at the mercy of landlords.

Student tenants faced the same stark reality 43 years ago. Rather than accept the status quo, they acted. They understood that only a tenants union could prevent landlords from violating tenants’ rights with impunity. They identified ways to expand and secure their rights. They then went to work to create a mechanism to realize those rights, which became the AATU.

These days, there’s a 708 E. Kingsley on every block. While the problems may have less to do with mice and more to do with money, student tenants continue to get the short end of the stick. More than ever, tenants need the AATU if they want to have a fighting chance against landlord interests in city hall and Lansing. Once more, students must rise to the challenge and organize a tenants union.

A revived AATU would once again fill a void— a void the University fails to fill. And upon return, it would defend tenants’ rights and provide comprehensive services to tenants with resolve long unseen. It would be the fierce advocate we all deserve.

Kevin Mersol-Barg can be reached at kmersolb@umich.edu.

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