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Guest Blog: To Solve the Housing Crisis, NC Needs a Strong Tenants’ Union

After living in the Crystal Towers apartments in downtown Winston-Salem for over a decade, Samuel Grier had gotten used to the elevator being broken. Every time he needed groceries, he climbed eleven flights of stairs. Older, soft-spoken and walking with a cane, he didn’t think of himself as an organizer until the housing authority decided to sell his building to a for-profit developer.

In 2018, Samuel started organizing with his neighbors to fight the sale. Together they formed a tenants’ union, Crystal Towers United, that knocked on every door in their building and gathered 2,000 signatures from residents and neighbors to stop the sale and fix the building. For months, they showed up at city council and housing authority meetings and in 2022, they finally won. The housing authority canceled and committed to addressing the building’s nearly $10 million in repair needs, after previously claiming it was impossible to find the money. 

The housing authority had the legal right to sell the building but the tenants recognized and claimed their collective power.  At a victory celebration, Samuel said, “We will be watching. We’re going to be vocal. We want results. We gonna get our results.” He and the rest of Crystal Towers United demonstrate what happens when tenants come together to fight back.

Many of us regularly deal with poor living conditions, unfair leases and annual rent increases, and the fear of losing our homes on our landlord’s whim without cause. Tenants must keep paying rent even if our heat is out in the winter, air-conditioning doesn’t work in the summer, or we have mold in the walls. Landlords are not required to provide renewable leases, which allows them to evict tenants at will at the end of the lease. We have limited recourse under our current laws and little control over our living situations. Landlords have the law on their side, but we have each other. 

Over 1.4 million households, a third of all North Carolinians, rent their homes. One in four tenants are spending over half of their income in rent. Of those experiencing severe cost burden, 75% are extremely low income, 38% are Black, and 32% of Latinx tenants. In 2022, 149,000 eviction cases were filed. These statistics are the result of a system that relentlessly prioritizes landlords’ profits and protects private assets rather than ensuring everyone has shelter. Individually, we are easy for landlords to pick apart, but collectively, we could form an unstoppable power base. 

Some argue that with enough supply, the housing market will fix itself. That we can build our way out of this crisis. But for many of us, our shelter will never be profitable. More luxury development will not trickle down to meet our needs. And we are tired of waiting. 

There is a lot that cities can do to defend tenants –  from expanding minimum housing codes to using public dollars for deeply affordable preservation. But, to fundamentally change the unfair power dynamic between landlords and tenants, we’ll need to build strong tenant unions that challenge landlords’ power at all levels, from building  through city councils up to the state legislature.

Already, tenants are demanding more from each other, our landlords, and our representatives.In Raleigh, tenants stopped a nearly 65% rent increase to keep their homes affordable. In New Bern, tenants won massive overdue repairs, finally securing working refrigerators and cleaning up the mold in their subsidized housing. And tenants from across the state stopped a bill that would further erode tenants’ nearly nonexistent rights. A statewide tenants’ union connects seniors in public housing in New Bern to young professionals with corporate landlords in Charlotte to recognize their shared self-interests, learn from one another, and fight for better living conditions together. 

We believe all North Carolinians have a right to safe, accessible and affordable housing and that tenants, not landlords, should have agency over their living situations. We know that the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. We are building a union led by tenants for tenants that not only meets immediate needs for critical repairs, better living conditions and affordable rents, but also works towards creating the housing justice we deserve. 


  • Jen Hampton, for Western NC Tenants Network based in Asheville
  • Samuel Grier, Dan Rose, and Sudarshan Krishnamurthy for Housing Justice Now Winston-Salem
  • Jessica Moreno for Action NC based in Charlotte
  • Sebastian Giraldo for Triangle Tenant Union
  • Dinah Foskey for Creating and Sustaining Equity in New Bern, NC
  • Christa Johnson New Hanover Tenants Union

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