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Tenants' Union Opens Door To Advocating For B-N Renters

Michele Steinbacher
People listen to members of the Bloomington-Normal Tenants Union Saturday evening at Franklin Park in Bloomington, during the organization's first public meeting.

The Bloomington-Normal Tenants Union (BNTU) hosted its first public meeting Saturday evening at Franklin Park, with members sharing how they hope the group can bring strength and a voice to renters in the area.

“None of us are professional organizers, or even trained organizers. We’re just tenants like you,” member Matt Tozcko told the small group of people gathered in the historic park near downtown Bloomington.

A local union for tenants can build solidarity and empowerment for a key group in the rental property industry, he said. “Landlords and Realtors and developers all have their organizations, based on their coming together for their interests.”

The BNTU will advocate for tenants, creating a more balanced environment, said Tozcko. Tenants don’t own property, but that’s their home, and they deserve dignity, he said. Among the group’s efforts is connecting tenants with resources in the community to help them, such as city council members, or nonprofits.

After June’s flooding, BNTU helped some basement apartment renters empty their places of furniture and belongings to expedite the recovery process.

Tozcko said sometimes tenants feel helpless when problems arise with a landlord. Maybe a tenant brings up a problem with the property that never gets addressed.

“We’re here to say, that’s not just how it is. 'The way it is' can be changed by people,” he said.

The union has been canvassing door-to-door, and hopes to do more outreach and education on tenant rights. Tentatively, it'll host monthly public meetings like Saturday's.

Zach Carlson said he and Toczko, who both rent residences in Bloomington, started to explore the idea of a union with fellow renters back in early 2019. The idea of a tenants' union isn’t new, said Carlson, adding they exist in communities across the United States, especially larger cities.

While many people are familiar with labor unions, the idea of a tenant group isn't as well known. But transferring the idea from the workplace to a living space makes sense, he said, adding, “A boss holds all the power in a work-employee relationship in the same way a landlord holds all the power in a tenant-landlord relationship.”

Carlson said as a union member himself, with the Industrial Workers of the World Local 620, he knows putting voices together makes a difference.

The BNTU identifies two unique local groups of renters who can benefit from a union: longtime residents and college students.

Campus-area apartments bring a different set of challenges, with most of those tenants staying only a few years. They often are first-time renters, and aren't familiar with local resources, said BNTU member Tate Skinner, an Illinois State University student who hails from St. Louis.

Carlson said students are a captive audience, and often get suckered into outrageous monthly rents with large rental companies.

Some other issues BNTU said it is exploring is how landlords sometimes charge too much in rent, neglect property, or maybe conversely get over-involved in tenants’ lives.

The group doesn’t have a website yet, said Carlson. However, people interested in learning more can find the union on Twitter @BNrenters; Discord linktr.ee/blonotenants; and email blonotenantsunion@gmail.com.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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