Tenants' Associations: What Should a Landlord Do?

Learn what a landlord should and shouldn't do if tenants form an association or union.

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No landlord is happy to learn that tenants have formed a tenants' association (also known as a "tenants' union"). Such news conjures up the fear that managing your property will involve greeting a firestorm of complaints and bitter battles over rent, maintenance, and other issues. Indeed, the notion of tenants banding together to deal with their landlord can be threatening and disconcerting, as it seems to imply an "us versus them" mentality that's not good for tenant relations.

If you learn that your tenants have formed an association, don't despair. Instead, take charge of the situation and steer it to your advantage. Here's a rundown on what you should -- and shouldn't -- do to stave off trouble and make the most of what could become a messy situation, if mishandled.

What You Should Do

If your tenants have formed an association, take quick action, as follows:

Do Some Fact Finding

Find out what motivated your tenants to form an association. Tenants always have issues or concerns with their landlord. But it takes something big -- or an escalating pattern of smaller problems -- to lead tenants to form an association. Talk to the association leaders and other tenants and ask about their concerns and complaints.

You might learn that the tenants have issues with your building's allegedly faulty heating, cooling, and plumbing systems. Or maybe they're fed up with what they perceive to be your lack of communication regarding lease and maintenance issues.

Fix Problems

After you learn what drove your tenants to form an association, make it your goal to improve the situation as soon as possible. Take action with a two-step plan.

First, remove the "fire" that led your tenants to form the association. Surprise your tenants by taking swift action to address any outstanding issues. Diffusing the situation in this way will give your tenants less motivation to stay organized and deflate their enthusiasm about the new association.

Second, make changes so that tenants see you as a responsive landlord going forward. This does not mean caving in to unreasonable requests or acting overly nice. (Such subservient behavior probably won't garner you much respect, anyway.) But you should take a hard look at your property and business practices.

If your staff members have been lax in responding to complaints, enforce a strict policy of taking all complaints seriously and responding to them promptly -- even if it's just to explain to a tenant why a problem can't be fixed immediately. Also, if you determine that you have been doing all the right things but have just been communicating them ineffectively, increase the level and frequency of communications between you and your tenants.

You needn't trumpet everything you do to make your property a good place to live, but if you take these steps, tenants will soon realize they no longer have the dire need for an association that they once thought they did. Even if your tenants don't formally disband their association, your actions and efforts will likely make the association's meetings less frequent and less impassioned.

Participate in Association Meetings

Offer to attend association meetings yourself or send an employee on your behalf. This will do a few things:

  • keep you informed of what's going on
  • help relieve any anxiety you may feel about the existence of a tenants' association at your property, and
  • show tenants that you care about the property as much as they do and that you want all your tenants to be satisfied customers.

Keep in mind that tenants don't have to let their landlord attend association meetings, and your tenants may not want you pre sent at theirs. If so, respect their wishes but let them know that you would at least like to meet with association leaders to discuss any issues the association may have.

What You Shouldn't Do

Here are a few things you should not to do if your tenants form an association:

Don't Retaliate

In many states, it's illegal to retaliate against tenants for joining an association. And as a practical matter, it's a bad business practice. You're not likely to succeed in thwarting tenants' efforts to organize, and instead you'll probably just add to the discord.

Just as you shouldn't retaliate against tenants who join an association, don't reward tenants or provide incentives to prospects or tenants for not joining. For example, don't offer a rent discount to a prospect in return for his promise not to participate in the association. 

Don't Interfere With the Association

Treat tenants' associations just like any other group at your property. If you let groups leaflet your property or post flyers in your common areas, let the association leaders do so too, as long as they follow your rules. If you make your clubhouse or meeting rooms available to tenants, allow the tenants' association to use these areas.

Your local laws may have special rules regarding tenants' associations. For example, in New York City, landlords cannot charge a facility or use fee for tenants' association meetings on the property. And in Gaithersburg, Maryland, tenants and tenants' associations have the right to distribute and post literature about landlord-tenant issues as long as its origin is properly identified.

To learn more about adopting careful and consistent business practices for your properties, get Every Landlord's Property Protection Guide: 10 Ways to Cut Your Risk Now , by attorney Ron Leshnower (Nolo).

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