Craft of Campaigns S1E2 | Training For Change

S1 E2: Tara Raghuveer on hijacking Kansas City’s elections by being “ruthless” about basebuilding

November 22, 2022


Episode Guest

Tara Raghuveer is the Housing Campaign Director at People’s Action. She is also the Founder/Director of KC Tenants, where she organizes poor and working class tenants in Kansas City, and the Kansas City Eviction Project, a multi-year research project on evictions in the Kansas City metro area. 

Pivoting on the Path to Power: Building a Citywide Tenant Union in Kansas City 

by Andrew Willis Garcés | abridged version also published in The Forge
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Election Day brought mixed results for community organizers in blue, purple and red states. But in Kansas City, MO, tenant organizers simply added to a string of historic issue campaign victories when voters approved a $50 million housing bond, which they had forced the City Council to add to the ballot just weeks before. The largest infusion of affordable housing funding in the city’s history also completely redefines “affordable” as units charging less than $750/month, from the existing $1,200/month standard. It’s practically unheard-of for tens of millions of dollars in housing funding to be set aside for residents making less than 30% of the Area Median Income, but this was KC Tenants’ sixth citywide issue campaign victory since the group’s launch in 2019. 

With recent attention from the New York Times and a track record of transforming citywide rental housing conditions unmatched by housing organizing groups in cities with more ascendant progressive governing power, it’s worth asking: how did they get here? 

In the fall of 2018, longtime housing policy organizer and People’s Action campaign director Tara Raghuveer moved from Chicago back to her hometown of Kansas City, MO, to join three women, all renters who had seen the writing on the wall, and all of whom wanted to make a stand in a city where the cost of renting was going up much faster than their incomes: “I asked them, ‘where do you see yourself in four years after the new mayor and Council are elected [in 2019],’ and all of them said, ‘I won’t be in Kansas City anymore. I just won’t be able to make it here. I won’t survive in this city that I love and where I want to live and die.'” 

She says Kansas City’s local elected leaders were mostly or nominally Democrats at the time, “the kind of dominant political force in town is the development community and the Chamber of Commerce, and they’re all in cahoots with one another and every politician, regardless of party, is in some kind of relationship with them.” And none were eager to take aggressive action that would make it more possible for tenants like Tiana Caldwell, Diane Charity and Brandy Granados – Tara’s co-conspirators – to continue living in the city limits. 

Tara says the choice to found KC Tenants with them with “was a simple one”: “The people closest to the problem were the closest to the solutions. So what we needed to build was an organization that expressed both the power and the expertise of people whose lives had actually been impacted by housing insecurity.”

Their long-term goal was to build a powerful organization of working class tenants that could reshape the balance of power between renters and the for-profit housing lobby. To do that, they knew they would need to engage with the rapidly approaching 2019 municipal elections differently.

“The first project became making housing — not potholes, not trash, but housing, and the people who live in homes, tenants — the center of the municipal election that spring, and we did that successfully. But goal number one was actually to build a base. And goal number two was to impact the election and the conversation around the election and keeping those priorities in check was really important to us. The intervention in the election was primarily to serve the first goal of building the base of our organization, not the other way around.”

As an example of how that calculus changed their day-to-day organizing, she pointed to the dozens of hours invested each week in preparing for the weekly citywide tenant organizing committee meeting.

“Starting on February 17th, we had a two-hour tenant meeting every weekend for, well, the next three and a half years, we still have a two hour tenant meeting every Saturday;” she said, smiling. “And that was a huge expenditure of time and energy in the beginning to orchestrate, to get more people there every week. It required the canvassers who were working with us at the time, and the leaders who we had recruited in early, and me to be doing dozens of one-on-ones with potential leaders every week. And that’s time that if we had been confused about our priorities, we might have been spending engaging candidates or writing policy documents or something.”

But their basebuilding and scouting for building-level tenant campaigns were incorporated into their work to influence the election, with the weekly “call to action” at the meeting oriented towards building citywide power: “They’d come to a meeting and then the next week we’d be like, ‘Well, there’s three [candidate] town halls next week, our plan is to show up and disrupt all of them and ask questions about housing. Are you in? Cool, sign up here. Here’s a yellow shirt. See you on Tuesday at the public library.”

Those meetings were growing larger and KC Tenants was gaining a reputation among renters into the summer of 2019 largely due to its effective building-level campaign work, which led to immediate changes in tenants’ housing conditions. “A few weeks into our basebuilding, we heard from some of our tenant leaders that a property manager, Landmark Properties, had illegally charged a fee to every one of their tenants to help them subsidize the cost of this new healthy homes ordinance in town… retaliatory behavior that was not supposed to be allowed,” she says. “After talking with the folks who were impacted by this and getting their permission, we put all this information on social media and did a public call to action for all of our followers to call the city’s health department, the mayor, City Council, call Landmark Properties, and demand that they retract this fee and within 24 hours they retracted the fee, put a letter under everyone’s door saying, ‘our bad, we didn’t realize this was illegal.’ So little things like that that we figured out we could do pretty quickly, demonstrated in a material way to the leaders that we were recruiting in why this thing was worth their time.”

Along with scouting for building-level campaigns, they continued to use the rhythm of a weekly citywide organizing committee meeting and the coming Council elections to influence the story of the local races.

“We did a forum for City Council candidates. We wrote a questionnaire and put out a voter guide. We did house meetings with each of the mayoral candidates in the general election where they had to actually go to the home of one of our leaders and sit in the conditions in which they lived, and do a really intense meeting with about fifteen folks from our crew that informed the voter guide.”

(That voter guide read, in part, “Also, the municipal election is not everything. It’s important. But we’re here to build long term, sustainable power among KC tenants. That base of power will hold these folks accountable, but we’ll also be taking on bad landlords, out-of-state investors, and picking statewide fights that we know are critical. So stay tuned!”)

With dozens of new members attending the forums and participating in the endorsement process and nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts, the winners of the June 2019 election had largely endorsed KC Tenants’ “People’s Housing Platform”, including the mayor, Quinton Lucas.

“We ended up electing the people that I think were probably representative of the most aligned with us at the time. And the first night that the mayor was the mayor, he slept in the home of one of our leaders in a property owned by the biggest evictor in Kansas City.”

After the new City Council was inaugurated that fall, the group’s member leaders dove into translating their electoral power into policy.

“We got to work drafting a Tenants Bill of Rights internally first. The mayor’s team was like, ‘We can write it for you, our lawyers can draft it’. And our leaders were like, ‘Nah, we’re good on that. The people closest to the problem or the closest to the solutions’. So we spent countless hours drafting our wishlist, working through some questions with legal partners, drafting the actual legislation ourselves, workshopping it with the mayor’s team and with members at the council introducing that ordinance in the end of October.”

They quickly faced three big hurdles, two of them unexpected. “The real estate lobby came out against us, which we knew would happen. And this was back in the day when the landlords were, they weren’t exactly well organized, but they were more willing to oppose us publicly than they are now.” But KC Tenants hadn’t realized many councilmembers wouldn’t even read the bill they were being asked to vote on, instead listening to what the landlord lobbyists said was in it, and they hadn’t clearly enough communicated what they would need from the mayor for him to serve as the group’s “champion” on the legislation. As the lies gained traction among fence-sitting councilmembers, a pivotal November 2019 committee vote loomed.

“What we needed most was our champion to be out front and say the truth about what was in this policy that he was the sponsor of, but he wasn’t taking any sort of public position,” Tara said. “And then, 24 hours before this next committee meeting, he delayed it another two weeks, which basically bought the opposition another two weeks to spread their lies. And we were like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ But the day that he made that decision, we were in city hall meeting with a different council member. So we went up to his [office] and demanded a meeting with him then and there; we already had 200 people organized to be at the committee meeting the next day. And most of our leaders needed childcare and needed to take off work they had sacrificed to hold that time on their calendar. And we said, ‘If you’re not gonna do the committee meeting with us tomorrow, you have to do a press conference with us where you speak directly to the cameras and tell the truth about what’s in this ordinance before they get another two weeks to lie.’ And he was surrounded by twenty [of us]. And we knew his self-interest as our target: we knew he was deeply motivated by an opportunity to look good in front of the press and deeply scared of looking bad or looking like he was lying in front of the media. So we orchestrated this opportunity for him to look good and for us to get the truth told about what was in the ordinance.

“We showed up the next day [to that press conference] with the 200 people that we had already organized to be there. The opposition wasn’t even there because the committee meeting had been canceled. And we got this beautiful moment where the mayor is just speaking directly to the cameras about what’s actually in the ordinance.”

The Tenant Bill of Rights passed into law a month later, establishing a new municipal Office of the Tenant Advocate, protecting tenants’ right to organize, limiting fees and security deposits that could be charged to tenants and making it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants who had been evicted in the past. And the group had learned “we had to get ruthless about our power analysis of our targets, and especially our champion when he stepped out of line”. 

They were set to integrate those learnings into a campaign early the following year to win implementation and funding of the new office, but the pandemic forced a pivot. 

The group successfully pushed for a local eviction moratorium in March 2020, which expired just two months later. Attempting to go above their local targets, they convened a statewide coalition to organize for rent and mortgage cancellation and a statewide eviction moratorium, which wasn’t able to build enough momentum to win either set of demands. Stalled at the state level, the group again tried in vain to keep the local eviction moratorium from expiring: “We held a vigil at the presiding judge’s house. We called people who go to Bible study with him and asked them to compel him on a moral basis to reinstate the eviction moratorium. Nothing worked.”

KC Tenants simultaneously began eviction defense casework, “because tenants were literally calling my cell phone, it was really, really bad in those first couple weeks of COVID and being on the receiving end of those calls, without any real system to do something about them.” Today the group’s tenant hotline is staffed by a team of thirty dues-paying members, “but at the time it was a real scrappy operation,” she says.

Their mutual aid fund also started out of necessity, “because many of our leaders who we needed in order to continue wielding our power in the way that we had been, were completely devastated by layoffs. And even those who were essential workers, like [KC Tenants’ member] Jana for example, she was working the overnight shift at QuickTrip still, but her kids were sent home from school, so she basically had 30 minutes to sleep in any given 24 hour period.”

As evictions ramped up in May and June, they debated their options: “It was a debate about ‘what is our goal here?’ And some of our leaders were like, ‘Well, our goal is to win an eviction moratorium’. And we’re like, ‘Yeah, but we’ve tried all this stuff and he’s not budging. We’re not gonna win it.’ The Missouri Supreme Court’s not gonna give it to us. The governor’s certainly not gonna give it to us. At the time there was no national moratorium. And then other people in our base were like, ‘That’s not the goal. The goal is to end evictions. And a moratorium is one path to ending evictions, but there might be other paths and it might be time for us to explore those.'”

The “try to stop evictions by all means necessary” camp won out. Attempting to implement that goal, the group realized that some tenants were being evicted at in-person court hearings, but the majority were actually being “evicted by conference call” via hearings that anyone could call into. “We thought, ‘what if we disrupted those hearings?,'” Tara said. At the end of July they orchestrated a rally outside the courthouse, and simultaneously sent member teams to disrupt both the in-person and call-in hearings, “and what we found was that the verbal disruptions on the conference lines were extraordinarily effective.” After beginning the disruptions in August, the Centers for Disease Control announced a national eviction moratorium. “We’re like, ‘Okay, let’s wait a minute and see how this plays out locally.’ Our local judges all but ignored it and they exploited the loopholes of that moratorium, kept eviction courts open. So by the beginning of October, we had to go back to the drawing board on shutting down evictions.”

Again, the group returned to dramatic direct action, with dozens chaining themselves to the doors of the Jackson County courthouse on October 15. “And meanwhile, we had teams of disruptors in every single courtroom for both the morning and afternoon eviction dockets in Kansas City. And within thirty minutes we shut down every eviction that was scheduled that day. And we met a bunch of tenants at the courthouse that we then recruited into our base,” she says.

The next month, they expanded their focused disruption of the online call-in hearings, “with the goal of putting so much pressure on the individual judges that they would just close down their courtroom for a set of weeks. And we got the judge with the highest volume eviction docket to shut her courtroom from the beginning of November through the end of 2020. So that delayed hundreds of evictions within the span of a couple of weeks.”

“It’s like there is still an imminent threat of death if someone does not have a place to shelter themselves from the pandemic. So we decided to run a kind of mini campaign called Zero Eviction January, where the goal was to try to orchestrate, sustain direct actions such that there were as close to zero evictions as possible.”

They planned two direct actions each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays (the days eviction hearings were held). 152 eviction hearings were scheduled the day the Jackson County circuit court resumed them, with KC Tenants disrupting 136 through direct actions, which included eighty tenant leaders blockading two sets of doors outside the courthouse, nine leaders inside creating a disruption, and fifty people disrupting online evictions in the morning and afternoon. By 3:00 PM the group had interrupted most of the scheduled eviction hearings. A week later the presiding judge reinstated a temporary eviction moratorium reinstated, which was then adopted by neighboring Clay County a week after that. The group delayed 919 evictions during “Zero Eviction January“, with many delayed for months beyond that or even dismissed. “We didn’t actually think we could get close to zero evictions in January. We were being kind of like gutsy in saying that, right? But we actually got close to it.”

They also ended that month with a new strategic capacity, a member-led security team that has become their go-to for high-risk direct actions. “I can just call Gary and Howard and be like, ‘Hey, we got an action this weekend’ They know exactly what that means. They know how to train other leaders on it. And it’s because we built this amazing collective muscle during that month that can’t atrophy at this point.”

But, Tara says, the muscles and unity they built as a team during that month of action went way deeper than an expanded ability to “turn up”. Rather, they had sharpened their ability to attend to each other’s emotions.

“It could have just been a like brutal grind, right? We were doing  so much all the time. It was cold, people were tired. We were a year into the pandemic at that point. And it was [a grind] some ways, don’t get me wrong, but we started every meeting with a pretty deep, relational check-in. We spent probably 20 minutes of the beginning of every meeting in breakout rooms on Zoom,  deeply checking in with one another on a human level before we got to any of the strategy, any of the business, any of the next steps. And after every single action, we did  an emotional debrief right afterwards that was just like, ‘Hey, how are you? We just did that thing. Do you feel amazing or do you feel burned out?'”

But at the end of January, it was time to pivot again.

“And at the end of that month, people were like, ‘All right, we did the damn thing. We cannot be in reaction mode forever. We don’t know how long this pandemic’s gonna go on… we can’t send people to the courthouse twice a week, every week for the rest of our lives. We have to get back to thinking about the system and how we can wield our power, especially all this new power we’ve built to grind the gears of that system to a halt in a more sustainable way than what we’ve been doing.”

Shifting focus to go “on the offensive”, members of the group’s inaugural Black organizing fellowship – a group of Black member leaders who had been brought on staff to learn and practice paid organizing – helped kick off several new campaigns, including winning $1.5 million in funding for the city office created by their Tenant Bill of Rights victory, in March, and initiating a homeless union which staged a months-long encampment at City Hall which forced the city to provide shelter beds at area hotels in April.

That Spring the group also launched the first part of a campaign for what Tara calls “our North Star”: municipal social housing. “That is to say housing that’s deeply and permanently affordable. It’s off of the private market, it’s publicly backed, it is not available for speculation.” Their first demand: an affordable housing trust fund run by tenants. Starting in June 2021, the group pushed the mayor to accept their visionary proposal. In November he convinced the City Council to back a different housing program without tenant leadership that KC Tenants called “a slush fund for developers”, but they ultimately won something closer to their vision of a housing trust fund, with an inaugural board that includes two KC Tenants members and is funded by $50 million in municipal bonds.

Demonstrating just how much power the group had built in less than three years of organizing, at the end of 2021 they won yet another citywide campaign – a ‘Right to Counsel’ for every tenant in eviction court, creating a new tenant legal defense program – in less then eight days: “We introduced that policy on December 2nd, 2021, and it passed with a vast majority of City Council voting in favor and no changes to the policy that we had written by December 9th.” It went into effect in June 2022 and supported over 400 tenants facing eviction in its three months in operation.

These “headline” policy victories disguise what may be the most important source of their growing citywide power: KC Tenants’ ability to rapidly change conditions through building-level tenant unions, like the one they built at Gabriel Tower in the summer of 2020, after tenants at the 113-unit building had been without air conditioning for three weeks.

Tara tells the story, which is worth sharing in full: “They were in their parking lot on a Monday morning with a bunch of signs that Pappy, who would become the leader of the union, he had wheeled himself to the corner store and bought poster board and markers and handed them out to his neighbors. And they were out in the parking lot to protest, but also because frankly it was cooler in the parking lot than it was in their homes in this kind of big building where the air conditioning had been off for three weeks.

“Their neighbors were getting sick and dying. Right? This is a building of mostly elderly folks, mostly Black and a lot of folks with disabilities. And so people were getting sick. [KC Tenants] got a phone call that Monday morning as people drove by and saw all these folks outside with signs. And so we ended up there within a couple minutes. Gabriel Tower is like five minutes from my house, so I drove over there, got out, met the folks for a couple hours on the pavement of the parking lot. We wrote out their demands for their union. I ran home, typed them up, brought them back, and then a team of KC Tenants helped them canvass the whole building and the whole parking lot to get people signed onto these demands.

“So by the end of that first day on Monday, they had a tenant union and the union had organized a bunch of press to be there. And had also [organized] hundreds of phone calls from supporters across Kansas City into Millennia Company’s corporate office. So by Tuesday, Millennia put a corporate representative on a plane in the middle of a pandemic from Ohio to Kansas City.

“In the middle of that day, we, the union did a meeting with that corporate rep and got several commitments including to get the air conditioning turned on that [day]. We also did a little party in the parking lot cuz it was still cooler in the parking lot than it was inside… It was a good time and in the midst of that, the leaders put on this amazing meeting and by Wednesday the air conditioning was turned on.” Afraid of further pressure from the tenants, the company purchased 114 window A/C units as a stopgap measure, and the group eventually pressured the new secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate the company.

These building-level fights have also directly contributed to the group’s citywide victories, as when the Midtown Tenant Union successfully blocked local landlord MAC Properties from receiving a promised $10.5 million tax incentive from the city in January 2022, which was instead allocated to the city’s new housing trust fund. KC Tenants plan to continue expanding its regional footprint into a citywide union, with the goal of recruiting 5% of the city’s 228,000 tenants as dues-paying members. (As of August, the group had 4,500 dues-paying members, counting 450 member leaders with specific roles.) Along with flexing its collective bargaining power to win better living conditions, KC Tenants has also experimented with offering other membership benefits; like many traditional unions, they’ve negotiated discounts at local coffee shops, a yoga studio and other small businesses.

But, Tara says, their primary organizational growth edge is figuring out not just how to build up to their recruitment goal, but “how to build at scale without sacrificing depth and be really thoughtful about wielding power. What does thousands more members in our union actually get us if we don’t know how to wield that power? So a lot of this year has been, asking those questions and experimenting with our ideas about what the answers might be.” To help answer that question, the group launched a 501c4 sibling organization in Fall 2022, “part of a much bigger game of chess”, she says. “If we’re ever to win that ‘North Star’ [we’ll need] real champions, who are our own people calling the shots… people who are thinking of the city’s budget as the moral document that it is and wielding that budget to house the people rather than harm the people, which is kind of how our budget is currently wielded.”

Lessons for Campaigners: “Be Ruthless” About Basebuilding

When asked about why she thinks Kansas City’s tenants have won so many more protections through campaigns than those of any other city in the last three years, Tara just points to the group’s basebuilding. “It’s important for me to say, I don’t think there was a secret sauce. I don’t think there was really a magic to it. It was just good organizing. It was like the basics of organizing and campaigning. We had a target, the mayor and City Council.”

As to how the group’s style of basebuilding might set it apart from organizational peers, she points to their willingness to incorporate “ruthlessness around basebuilding”. She says, “I see a lot of organizers hesitate to invite people into this work, and I actually find that to be… oftentimes patronizing. I see a lot of organizers making choices for people about how they are going to spend their time on a path to their own liberation instead of inviting them to make a choice for themselves, which is a choice to build power with their neighbors and to win shit that’s gonna change their lives for the better. So I do think there’s just like a ruthlessness around base building that is part of our organizational DNA now.” 

She also identifies the group’s culture of learning as another core ingredient of their “DNA”, and one reason they’ve been able to recruit so many members into the organization:

“Every time we set out to run one of those campaigns, one of the first things that we do is write out all of our desired outcomes. Desired outcome number one is the material win, maybe desired outcome number two is like, ‘this is the number of leaders we want plugged into this number of roles. This is the number of new leaders we want to recruit into the organization through this campaign.’ At the end of the campaign, at the end of every meeting, we evaluate everything. We actually look back on that and say, ‘Did we have 13 new leaders in these stretch roles? Did we recruit 50 tenants who had never interacted with KC Tenants yet into our organization? If not, why not?’ Right? ‘Were we relying too much on the people that we already have? Was it too staff-driven?’ That’s another big pitfall, right? Basically this is all to say, I think we’re very clear on power. Power equals organized people, plus organized money. We have a lot of people to organize.”