By Celia Weaver
New York’s housing crisis is so entrenched that it is understood to be nearly inevitable. “The rent is too damn high” is both a local adage and a self-fulfilling prophecy that allows politicians and policy makers to tinker at the edges while 50 percent of New York State residents cannot afford their rents and ninety-two thousand go homeless. It has seeped out of the five boroughs and is widely felt all over the state. Capitalist crises, like this one, are always racialized and take their harshest toll on Black and brown people. In this regard, New York’s housing crisis is no different. The real estate industry is the most politically powerful industry in New York, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to lawmakers in Albany. The city is home to the most valuable land in the country and to a storied tenant movement, one that has held on to public housing and rent control for forty years despite a national lurch toward deregulation and privatization.
Our current system of rent regulation is the product of these contradictions. Under the current system, tenants in eligible apartments are offered the right to renew their lease, and a public board of mayoral appointees decides on rental increases. The system covers roughly 1.1 million apartments in New York City and the surrounding three counties. Between 1993 and 2019, New York lost nearly four hundred thousand regulated apartments to high-rent vacancy deregulation—a loophole written into the system that allows landlords to escape regulations once rent reaches a certain threshold—most recently, $2,700 a month.
But in 2019, after decades of struggle, the New York State tenant movement scored a generational victory: the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (HSPTA). This piece of legislation expands rent stabilization to cover the entire state of New York—bringing potentially thousands of homes into rent regulation. It rolls back key landlord-friendly provisions in New York’s tenant protection laws—provisions that were causing widespread unaffordability and evictions, encouraging runaway real estate speculation, and if left unchecked, would have caused rent stabilization to disappear completely.
. . . [I]n 2019 . . . the New York State tenant movement scored a generational victory: the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. This piece of legislation expands rent stabilization to cover the entire state of New York . . .
The strong provisions in the HSTPA shocked many on all sides of housing politics in New York. Repealing vacancy decontrol—a law which allowed landlords to jack up rental prices in vacant units and incentivized harassment and eviction—had long been the white whale of New York’s renters. The HSTPA did this and more—reforming rent and eviction regulations in radically pro-tenant ways. The events of June 2019 caused many to comment on the ascendant power of tenants in New York and speculate on whether the days of real estate’s domination of our state’s politics were over.
A year later, the tenant movement is at a crossroads. During the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have lived without income for half a year and have little confidence in their ability to make next month’s rent. The movement’s demands—to cancel rent and to keep eviction courts closed for over a year—are bolder than ever before. Thousands are withholding their rent—the largest coordinated rent strike in decades.
But this surge in movement energy has so far failed to turn into legislative victory. Tenant activists are struggling to gain traction in a state capitol mired in steep, pandemic-induced fiscal shortfalls. The same legislature that passed the HSPTA has been remarkably reluctant to act on behalf of renters during the Covid-19 crisis, even after a wave of primary victories from the left earlier this year. Is the burgeoning New York tenants’ movement up to the challenges of the present moment? What are the strategic options available to the movement, and which should it undertake?
An Emboldened Tenant Movement Struggles at a Crossroads
To win the HSTPA, tenant organizations formed the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance—a broad-based coalition of dozens of housing justice organizations from across the state of New York. At the time, there had not been a viable statewide tenants’ rights organization in New York since the 1990s. For years, renters in New York City had been on the defensive, seeking to protect an existing system that was disappearing through attrition. After a period of dormancy, upstate New York renters began to get organized, primarily in Rochester, New York following the 2010 foreclosure crisis.
In 2017, in a major strategic shift, New York City tenant organizations opted to go on the offensive and called the first meeting of a new statewide coalition. In a church basement in Albany, New York renters and homeless New Yorkers from across the state found they had much in common: unaffordable rent hikes, unsafe living conditions, and fear of retaliation for organizing.
The Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance made three critical interventions. First, it opted to make bold demands with a mass, expansive, and unifying appeal: universal rent control. By doing so, it was able to grow the base of people fighting for changes to rent stabilization to include unregulated tenants and homeless New Yorkers in New York City and in upstate New York. This helped the movement overcome the so-called “Upstate-Downstate divide”—an excuse often used to stymie ambitious legislative agendas in Albany. Finally, the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance took dead aim at the role that the real estate industry plays in politics in New York State. Some of the lessons from the coalition, and the campaign in 2019 and the movement to cancel rent follow.
A combination of sky-high land values, a byzantine property tax system, and politics that are fueled by campaign donations has meant that for decades, New York politicians have been hopelessly tied to the real estate industry. In 2015, this reached a tipping point, and the Speaker of the New York State Assembly and the State Senate Majority Leader were both arrested in a corruption scheme tied to accepting bribes from real estate entities. Real estate interests are regularly the largest donors to Governor Cuomo’s political campaigns and are notoriously cozy with the Governor.
In 2015 . . . the Speaker of the New York State Assembly and the State Senate Majority Leader were both arrested in a corruption scheme tied to accepting bribes from real estate entities.
While Albany observers had long taken this dynamic for granted, it began to shift in 2015 when Diana Richardson was elected to the State Assembly to represent the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn by centering her campaign around refusing to accept real estate donations. This showed for the first time that the tenant movement and its bold demands had a broad political appeal that could be turned into electoral victories. Three years later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran for Congress and Julia Salazar, Zellnor Myrie, and others ran for State Senate on the same pledge and overwhelmingly won elections. Today, it is nearly impossible to run for office as a progressive in New York while simultaneously accepting political donations from real estate.
Today, it is nearly impossible to run for office as a progressive in New York while simultaneously accepting political donations from real estate
In addition, and perhaps more significantly, the tenant movement effectively used the 2018 electoral cycle as an opportunity to talk to thousands and thousands of voters about rent control and New York’s housing crisis. The Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance was able to use the election to bring thousands of people permanently into the housing justice movement. This meant that not only were candidates who ran on tenants’ rights elected with a mandate to deliver to renters, but the tenant movement was positioned to apply continued pressure in Albany through mass rallies, press conferences, and militant direct action.
. . . [T]he tenant movement effectively used the 2018 electoral cycle . . . to bring thousands of people permanently into the housing justice movement.
The 2018 electoral cycle set the tone for the victories of 2019, and sustained tenant organizing and action during the 2019 legislative session forced candidates to deliver on campaign promises. However, this setup did not continue into 2020. In 2020, backlash from the right and fear of the 2020 election pushed the Democratic state legislature into a crouching position. Rather than continue to pass progressive laws, it caved at the beginning of 2020 to moderate constituencies pushing to roll back criminal justice reforms.
. . . [O]ur demands today . . . differ significantly from progressive victories of 2019 in that they are not budget-neutral demands.
And notably, our demands today—to cancel rent, to house the homeless, and to invest in public and social housing—differ significantly from progressive victories of 2019 in that they are not budget-neutral demands. While the tenant movement has been able to maneuver in the state legislature to pass laws, we have failed significantly on any priority that requires an increase in taxation and more state spending. The state faces a nearly $61 billion budget deficit over the next four years, and Governor Cuomo, who wields tremendous power in budget negotiations, appears committed to addressing it through austerity measures, rather than through taxing the rich.
A Movement with Shifting Demographics and Organizational Ties
In recent years, New York’s renter justice movement has been primarily led by New York City–based Black and Latinx women (a change from the rent-regulation fights of the 1990s and early 2000s). For decades, racist housing policies at every level of government have encouraged white, middle-class homeownership through low-cost loans, locking out Black families through red-lining or trapping them with subprime mortgages in the early 2000s. This, combined with centuries of stolen land and labor, has meant that Black New Yorkers at every income level are far more likely than white New Yorkers to be long-term renters, and therefore have led the fight for strong tenants’ rights, investment in public and social housing, and more.
Today, though, that dynamic is shifting. Renting is on the rise in every part of the country, including in upstate New York. Millennials of every race are far less likely than their parents to become homeowners, and the number of people who are motivated to fight for strong rental housing policy is growing. Renters’ rights have always been a priority in New York City for working-class people and people of color. Today, the new crop of tenant activists is younger, and while still multiracial, it is whiter than the previous generation.
Meanwhile, in a parallel development, the tenants’ rights movement is shifting in terms of its organizational composition, toward more radical roots and away from foundation or government-funded neighborhood institutions.
Community-based organizations are often not-for-profit housing providers: landlords who acquired a great deal of in rem housing from New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the nonprofit housing sector owns and manages at least 125,000 units of city and state-subsidized rental housing in New York.
By the 1980s and the 1990s, following a period of both divestment and deregulation, the community development sector came to dominate the affordable housing conversation in New York City. While these organizations may additionally operate a community organizing department that educates tenants on their rights, during the rent-stabilization fights of the 1990s to 2000s, the housing movement had shifted away from its roots in rent strikes in the Lower East Side or Harlem, and toward the operation of deeply affordable housing for the poor.
Today, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. More than sixty buildings across the state are rent striking—perhaps the largest number in nearly a century, and collectively hundreds of thousands of individuals are unable to pay the rent. This presents contradictions for many of the community development organizations who notably rely on both rental income from their base constituency and federal, state, and city resources. As the tenant movement shifted toward a rent strike strategy at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, nonprofit housing providers were both materially and politically at odds with the tenants in the neighborhoods in which they are based.
The influx of a multiracial working-class youth movement into the tenant movement provides an opportunity to build alliances with the mass social movement formations of the last decade: most notably, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. Since March, dozens of tenant unions have sprung up in New York State—renters organizing autonomously at the building or community level to block evictions and improve living conditions. These movement organizations, less tethered to the political establishment and with fewer imperatives connected to neighborhood-based service provision, provide new opportunities for a broader political alliance around tenants’ rights, but are not likely to be aligned with the not-for-profit landlord community that has played a large role in building the base of the tenant movement for the last decade.
The influx of a multiracial working-class youth movement into the tenant movement provides an opportunity to build alliances with the mass social movement formations of the last decade: most notably, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Today, the housing movement in New York is diverse and multi-generational, with thousands of young people following the lead of the women of color who have led the movement for years. This collaboration shifted the political dynamic in Albany and delivered housing activists major victories in 2019. In the summer of 2020, “cancel rent” became one of several rallying cries of Black Lives Matter activists protesting the murder of George Floyd, seeking to defund the police and envision a more just world. As the tenant movement continues to shift in this direction, the contradictions in the community-based organizing model will continue to heighten.
Building a Political Coalition in Our Movement and in Albany
By limiting rent increases and offering tenants the right to renew their leases, rent control encourages housing affordability, limits the speculative value of land, and enables tenants to organize for better living conditions free from the fear of retaliatory eviction. Some of the reforms reflected in the HSTPA—to close loopholes that incentivized landlords to evict and that allowed rents to increase dramatically at vacancy—were longstanding demands of the tenant movement. Over decades, these demands had become political consensus among Albany Democrats and housing organizations in New York.
While there was deep and broad support for these rent-stabilization reforms, organizations at the table—tenant unions, anti-poverty service providers, neighborhood-based organizations, labor unions—likely came to this position for different reasons.
By 2019, not-for-profit landlords and affordable housing providers supported stronger rent-stabilization laws, at least partly because loopholes like vacancy decontrol—which encouraged real estate speculation by driving up rents in empty apartments—were making it impossible for these mission-oriented landlords who hold far fewer resources to compete with larger, more speculative landlords who could pay more for property in the real estate market. To continue to acquire buildings, nonprofit landlords needed to dampen speculation through stronger regulations. At the same time, legal service providers and anti-poverty organizations support protecting rent stabilization because, with nearly a million stabilized apartments, rent stabilization provides more housing to low-income people than any other single program.
Also in 2019, some of the state’s major labor unions supported stronger rent regulation as weak tenants’ rights were driving a large portion of their membership out of New York City. However, this was not without exception—other unions actively joined with the real estate industry to oppose tenant-friendly changes. Finally, tenant unions support rent stabilization because it represents a widespread transfer of power from landlords to renters and allows the public and not the market to set rent increases. While the HSTPA is not “universal rent control,” it significantly undermines the power of the real estate industry to dictate people’s housing and livelihoods.
In 2019, the realignment that existed in the housing movement also existed in the legislature, making reforming rent stabilization a priority for mainline Democrats, left-leaning progressives, and socialists alike. But today, the demand to cancel rent is different. Like rent stabilization, the demand to cancel rent questions the right to profit from real estate, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. Rather than a more narrow, technocratic conversation about affordability, “cancel rent” explicitly envisions a world that is free from landlord domination and rent-seeking. The “cancel rent” legislation, which does not prohibit collecting rent but does clear back rent accrued during the pandemic period, contains a landlord hardship fund—putting the onus on landlords to apply for aid, but requiring them open their books to prove that they need it. In exchange for aid, landlords must consent to basic tenant protections, including allowing tenants the right to renew their lease with limited rent increases.
. . . [T]he demand to cancel rent questions the right to profit from real estate, particularly in the middle of a pandemic.
This legislation is wildly popular among tenants and viewed with both skepticism and trepidation among those who, for decades, have purported to speak for the class of renters.
The Opportunity of the Political Moment
It is nearly inevitable that the real estate industry will restructure in response to Covid-19 and the results will look one of three ways depending on the actions of social, political, and economic players.
First, New York State could fail to act at all. We will face a humanitarian crisis—mass evictions and homelessness—as millions will be unable to pay rent. This crisis would come with an attendant foreclosure crisis in the real estate industry, and smaller or mid-sized landlords, unable to maintain their buildings, will exit the housing market. This scenario would lead to a further consolidation of the real estate industry by finance capital.
In April, private equity giant Blackstone Group announced it was setting aside $21 billion to invest in housing as prices fall and the market falters.
A second path is that New York State acts to protect the interest of landlords, likely through a voucher-based rent relief program. Under such programs, the government provides renters with money to pay a portion of their monthly housing costs. This scenario, preferred by many in Albany and most Democrats in Congress, will cost billions of dollars, avert mass evictions, and alleviate the immediate and urgent pain that many face.
However, it will also entrench a market-based system of providing “affordable” housing, without shifting power away from real estate toward renters. It does not question the validity of the existing system that is premised on using real estate to generate profit, nor would it shift the exploitative landlord–tenant relationship. Both real estate interests and some of the same organizations that came together to fight for the HSTPA are actively lobbying for this scenario.
The third and final path, favored by the housing justice movement, is that New York State would leverage weakness in the real estate industry to build on the victories of 2019 and further de-commodify housing and land. This can be done through canceling rent, closing eviction courts, and, as landlords exit the market, using state action to acquire properties and leverage disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.
Renters have the opportunity, through both organizing door-to-door and joining with mass social movements, to force the state into taking this route. But the contradictions that have emerged since 2019 will continue to surface. The answer and the opportunity are to continue to go on the offensive and make bold demands, building power through organizing at the local, grassroots, and movement level.
Celia Weaver is the campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of more than eighty tenants’ rights organizations in New York. In 2019, she coordinated the fight to strengthen and expand tenant protections in New York, leading to the passage of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019—some of the strongest tenants’ rights laws in the country.