Since the dissolution of the Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union almost two years ago, housing issues have become critical, as students encountering problems with their off-campus housing and their landlords have been unable to receive adequate help. The Michigan Student Assembly’s response efforts, an assortment of initiatives to help students fight abuse at the hands of landlords, such as the “Know Your Rights” forums with Student Legal Services and a plan to appoint a full-time attorney to tackle tenant issues, are not without merit. However, MSA executives are mistaken if they believe that these efforts will solve the housing problem or quiet students’ concerns. A tenants’ union capable of collectively representing students is necessary to improve the situation, and MSA must work to bring such an organization into being if it is to address the housing situation effectively.
MSA cut its funding to the AATU because, in the words of MSA President Jason Mironov, its use of the $20,000 it had been allocated was “inefficient at best, and reckless at worst.” The failure of the AATU to facilitate collective action against landlords could explain its downfall. Instead of serving as a tenants’ union, critics accused it of acting as a redundant alternative to Student Legal Services, offering aid to individual tenants in lawsuits. Upon its demise, the legal functions of the AATU were transferred to SLS, which now represents all students at the individual level in court battles against landlords. However, legal action, while beneficial to the few individuals who fight successful cases, has little-to-no effect on the overall housing situation facing students.
Landlords do not change their behavior simply because they are not successful in court against a single tenant, and it is doubtful that a few more signatures and a “class action” label would make much of a difference. Illegal clauses still appear in leases, houses remain dilapidated and landlords continue to violate their tenants’ rights. What is needed is a tenants’ lobby — a group that can use the power of collective action to force change. A large group speaking broadly for the thousands of University students who rent housing could raise public awareness of housing issues, pressure city government to enact tenant-friendly legislation and counteract the entrenched power of Ann Arbor’s landlords.
Unfortunately, MSA seems to be under the impression that throwing lawyers at the ever-growing problem of housing in Ann Arbor is the solution. Such thinking is na