Power Amid Peril: Tenants' Experiences with and Resistance to Substandard Housing Conditions in Syracuse, New York

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Geography & the Environment


Jonnell Robinson


community organizing;community-engaged research;housing;housing quality;power;tenant unions

Subject Categories

Geography | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Millions of tenants across the US cannot access safe, affordable housing as the nation’s rental-housing stock continues to climb in price and deteriorate in quality. This lack of access detrimentally impacts the health and stability of low-income renters and widens existing racial and economic disparities. In response, tenant organizations across the country have launched campaigns to transform this unequal housing system and build power for tenants suffering within it. This thesis, presented in two papers, examines tenants’ experiences living in and resisting poor housing conditions in Syracuse, New York – currently the most competitive rental market in the nation – where one third of the housing stock is severely deteriorated. The first paper exposes the pervasive unsafe housing conditions that low-income renters in Syracuse are forced to endure. I demonstrate that the local Code Enforcement agency, a housing intermediary charged with protecting the quality of housing for all Syracuse residents, has failed to achieve this goal. As a result, I argue the department is restricting access to safe, quality housing on the individual and systemic level, as tenants' agency to voice concerns about or exit unsafe conditions are limited. The second paper tells the story of the Syracuse Tenants Union (STU), from their founding in 2018 to the present. The piece reflects on the challenges of organizing tenants in Syracuse and STU’s strategies to overcome them. Particularly, I discuss their tactics of building trust between, relationships with, and leaders among Syracuse’s tenant base to win immediate material improvements and long-term legislative changes. Following the reflection, I provide suggestions for the organization’s future, particularly surrounding their tactics for base-building. Both papers advance the theoretical and practical understanding of the challenges faced by Syracuse tenants attempting to access affordable, quality housing and effective practices to remove those barriers, through solidarity-building and local policy change.


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