Building Power Amidst Crisis: Tenant Unionizing in the Upper Valley
Nov 28, 2021

Ian Scott

Artwork by Ian Scott

In this interview the Dartmouth Radical sits down with Olivia Shin and Wren, two organisers working to build power for tenants in the Upper Valley.

Over the course of the pandemic, the Upper Valley has undergone an extreme housing crisis. With increasing property values, predatory landlords, and Dartmouth students moving off campus to deal with our own housing shortage, it has become exceedingly difficult for residents to find affordable housing. In this interview the Dartmouth Radical sits down with Olivia Shin and Wren, two organisers working to build power for tenants in the Upper Valley. In our conversation, we discuss the driving forces behind the crisis, tenants’ unions, and the role of students in the struggle against housing as a commodity.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Wren: My name is Wren, I’m a ‘21. I majored in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Currently I locate myself on the Highlands of the Connecticut River in Etna, NH. Along with the tenants’ union I also wear the hat of a climate justice organizer with 350 New Hampshire and the No Coal No Gas campaign, which are separate entities trying to close a coal plant in New Hampshire.


Olivia: My name is Olivia Shin. I live in Lebanon, NH. I did not go to Dartmouth. I moved here two and a half years ago now and I've been working here doing science, but am now looking into other fields…I started doing a lot of organizing with the Upper Valley DSA and doing a lot on their Care Not Cops Campaign last year. Now I’ve moved over to doing the tenants’ union and coordinating between DSA and the union so that we can support each other in whatever way is best.


What’s the current state of the housing crisis in the upper valley?


Olivia: The vacancy rate right now is under 1%, so there's clearly a large shortage of housing units. The average price of one bedroom in the Upper Valley in 2020 was $2,026 a month for a one bedroom. And there are some affordable housing units like the Twin Pines housing, but there's just really not enough, and there's also no government funded public housing available in this area, and we plan to look into public housing laws once the tenant’s union gets off the ground.


Wren: I've been up here for four years and a bit and over the past few years we've definitely seen a lot of local municipalities who are sending unhoused folks and people living in encampments away. There is a consistent threat to evict them usually at the hands of local police departments. There's a fight happening in Burlington where there's a big encampment on Sears Lane and that is being threatened as well. This happens seasonally—they want to do it before the winter because, if they do it in the winter, it becomes a moral problem. You can't evict people in the winter, but if you do it in the fall, it's OK. Municipalities do these things, but then they also position themselves as the people that have all the resources to help you find housing. It sets up that power relationship which is really just about the municipalities and the state putting their power over people who are living or trying to live.


What sort of policies are local governments engaging in to enforce these practices?


Wren: We see it in even seemingly small things, like Hanover has ridiculous parking fees and so if you're working in Hanover that's coming out of your wages. If you don't work in Hanover and you have something that you might need in Hanover but you're poor, you're not going to be able to afford coming to town. Other municipalities are also putting these measures in. White River is trying to put in metered parking as well. We also recognize that places like Norwich and Hanover have average salaries of over $100,000 a year. So we have this massive crisis where poor people who live up here are being forced out of these affluent areas. It is an active perpetuation of classism and racism.


Olivia: During the Care Not Cops Campaign when we asked the city to transfer funds from the Police Department to Health and Human Services, the municipality would say, “Well, we can't have Health and Human Services here because if we do anything like that, everyone from the rest of New Hampshire will come to this area and we don't want people gravitating towards our area who can't afford housing” It's extremely terrible that they're saying that: they are the only one with the resources and they refuse to provide them and then increase their police budgets.


Wren:  As an organizer I like looking at how all of these issues intersect with power, labor and land. So when we think about landlord tenant relationships, that power is inherently skewed towards the landlord  because they are the person who is certified by the so-called United States to own a piece of land — that the United States can't actually claim to own in any case. So, they own this land and they usually have access to it in surplus. And then you bring in labor, and you see that landlords are subsisting off of workers’ labor.


What are the primary drivers of the housing crisis right now?


Olivia: I think one thing I wanted to point out is that the idea of “crisis” is a misnomer. People who are working class and poor have always been in crisis for housing. It’s only at times like now or in 2008 when the market crashed and middle class people were put in danger of not being able to afford housing that we say that it is a crisis.


DR: We have also noticed Dartmouth’s role in the current state of the housing market in that the demand for housing among students drives up the prices in the Upper Valley. For example, in the case of the lottery for $5,000 dollars that Dartmouth was offering, landlords raised rents in anticipation of that. Is this consistent with your experience?


Olivia: Yeah, absolutely. When I talk to people, the story is the same: they are looking for housing and there are so few vacant spaces and as a result, prices just keep getting driven up. And even if you can find something that's affordable the landlords know that they can exploit you because you don't really have any other options. Talking to graduate students from Dartmouth, I hear of very similar situations where people don't have access to transportation and they can't live anywhere but Hanover, and then the landlords either treat them horribly or make it unaffordable.


Wren: All this, of course, while super rich people have their second, third and fourth homes in this area that sit vacant for large portions of the year.


How does housing connect to other issues like labor and childcare?


Wren: Capitalism wants to keep people poor: raising rents, limits on subsidized food, housing, and healthcare, all of that keeps people in a situation where they have to work to survive. And I think it's particularly interesting too, with childcare workers. Working in childcare is how I put myself through Dartmouth. When I was last there, the wages were simply not enough. There were a lot of single moms working as childcare teachers, making like $15-$17 an hour trying to afford a place to stay while the housing wage in New Hampshire is still at $24.43 an hour. And that's just to afford a two bedroom. It's the way that power systems maliciously weave their net to trap us.


So tell us about what a tenants’ union is and what it does to combat this.


Olivia: A tenants’ union is a way to build power, a way to gather tenants together and have them form their own relationships and be able to demand things that improve their immediate material conditions as well as demand a future where housing is de-commodified. It's really important to start there, and I think to us it's really important to be building a tenant’s union from the ground up. It allows people to network amongst each other and be the ones who are driving their own struggle.


Wren: A tenants’ union can be landlord specific, building specific, region specific, however it works in your context.


Olivia: We will be canvassing people to ensure people who live in housing under the same landlord can connect with one another. It’s also important to us that we don't turn into a legal aid organization, we want to build power amongst people and have organic leaders come out of those different subsets of people that we were just talking about.


Finally, how can Dartmouth students support your efforts?


Olivia: You can of course come help us canvas and plan events. We're trying to have a lot of networking events. And Dartmouth is all of yours’ landlord, so you can organize around that.


Wren: Not only is Dartmouth a landlord for a lot of students, but it's also one for a lot of people who are on the lower end of their wage scale system and live in employee housing. Something that I found difficult organizing at Dartmouth was the disconnect between Dartmouth students and the Upper Valley community, and I think it's really important to break down those barriers.