As snow fell heavily on the pavement, a small crowd assembled at the steps of the Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan. Signs were distributed, reading “Housing Justice for All” on one side and pictures of developers encased in dollar notes on the other. Some had written in, “Greedy Landlords,” “Stop Kushner,” or “Cuomo’s Housing Crisis.” While the crowd expanded, organizers formed a circle filled with makeshift drums, calling out chants: “One, two, three, four—I can’t pay my rent no more! Five, six, seven, eight—Cuomo works for real estate!”
In Fall 2017, fourteen groups that go by “the Upstate-Downstate Alliance” formed Housing Justice for All. Through that fall and spring of 2018, they hosted town halls in churches and community centers from Brooklyn to Long Island and Rochester. The goal? Stronger tenant protections and real solutions to New York’s affordable housing crisis. And the target of their ire? Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been notoriously cozy with the real estate industry and slashed funding for affordable housing programs during his tenure. Most recently, the coalition has set its sights on the rent control laws set to expire in June 2019, exactly eight months to the day of their protest on November 15th.
In New York City, landlords use many mechanisms to increase the rent for rent stabilized apartments, or remove them from rent restrictions altogether. Hundreds of thousands of rent stabilized apartments have lost their status, leaving those units—previously held to an incremental increase at each renewal—open to the free market. Many landlords use these incremental increases to push rents over the $2,700 cap for rent stabilization, triggering vacancy decontrol. In addition, landlords speed up that process by performing major capital improvements (MCIs) like installing new appliances that can push rents over the limit. Often, these measures are not used to benefit the tenants with necessary upgrades, but as a stepping stone to displacement, which often happens when the residents are first displaced for the MCIs to be completed. Once those apartments are empty, landlords can raise the rent up to 20% through what’s called a vacancy bonus.
Moreover, landlords use the tactic of preferential rent in which residents sign a lease with two rents: one lower rent that the landlord promises to pay for that rental term, and another rent, usually much higher (sometimes by as much as one-to-two thousand dollars), that renters are told not to worry about upon signing. After living in their apartments for one to several rental terms, the landlord then increases the rent to the higher value, sometimes with little notice as to give tenant no other option but to pay or scramble for new housing.
In cities outside of New York City like Rochester, Hempstead, and Buffalo, there are no tenant protection laws to shield tenants from forced evictions. In many of these places, low-income residents report slum-like conditions with caving roofs, leaks, rusting pipes, and sometimes no heat or running water. Every event hosted in service of the Housing Justice for All campaign includes a speaker section with tenants telling their stories—many far more harrowing than the baseline of neglect, harassment, and displacement.
Affordable housing is no longer an issue only for low-income people. All across America, more renters are rent-burdened, or spending more than 30% of their income on rent. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the percentage of tax-burdened households rose from 19% in 2001 to 38% in 2015. As Jimmy Tobias wrote for The Nation, “While progressives have pushed forcefully for immigrants’ rights, universal health care, fossil-fuel abolition, and a living wage in recent years, they have given short shrift to human shelter. There is no equivalent of the Fight for $15 when it comes to housing—and prominent political leaders speak far too little of rising rents, eviction rates, and homelessness.”
Perhaps it is only in the last few years that this paradigm has begun to change. The New York State gubernatorial primary was electrified by outrage over local issues: namely, the subways and housing. Cynthia Nixon took on Governor Cuomo with a housing plan aligned with Housing Justice for All, which included eliminating the preferential rent loophole, expanding tenant protections, and increasing funding for New York State Homes and Community Renewal. State Assemblyperson Zellnor Myrie ran on a campaign of universal rent control, joining a rising chorus of activists and housing organizations to prioritize affordable housing in New York.
For their part, the Housing Justice for All Campaign is working on a three-part strategy to push their message to Albany, Cuomo, and beyond. First is the overarching call for universal rent control as a salve for senselessly rising rents with no policy reprieve. This call acts as an entree into a larger body of policy suggestions laid out across local and state districts. Central to these suggestions is a tenants’ rights platform that prioritizes renters over landlords, including “the right to a lease renewal for all renters, and protections against untenable rent hikes and harassment.”
More specifically, the alliance is focusing on just-cause eviction protection for tenants living in buildings with less than six units where tenants can only be evicted for specific reasons like not paying rent or destroying property. Although New York City has its own housing court, no such tenant protections exist statewide. The coalition is pushing for three existing bills to disincentivize tenant harassment. Furthermore, they call for the end of vacancy decontrol to preserve existing rent-stabilized housing, as well as and end to preferential rent practices.
Yet for many in the coalition, the policy options on the table are only one piece of a larger patchwork of solutions to the housing problem that plagues New York and the rest of the country. As Ryan David Acuff—affiliated with the Catholic Worker in Rochester—has mentioned, “[the rent control fight] “is sort of making preparations for a more transformative struggle. That’s the second stage of the movement: to move toward universal social housing.” Earlier this year, the People’s Policy Project released a report entitled, “Social Housing in the United States.” They suggest focusing on local policy options and creating new revenue streams to fund housing, beginning with funding existing public housing. Yet the call for social housing also attempts to distance itself from the negative associations with public housing in the US. As a recent exhibit on social housing at the Center for Architecture defines, social housing is comprised of “a mix of public projects led by city authorities, philanthropic schemes led by charities and collective schemes led by residents. Common to them all…is the idea that there are alternatives to a purely market-oriented system of housing provision.”
Indeed, the undercurrent of the forthcoming housing movement is the push beyond policy to more radical alternative possibilities, the type rent control might pave the way for. Social housing is one of many strategies at play in this ecosystem, as are community land trusts and common ownership models lauded by urban theorists like David Harvey, Peter Marcuse, and Tom Angotti. Rochester has established its own community land trust, City Roots CLT, as has the Fruit Belt neighborhood in Buffalo and several groups across New York City, including those in East Harlem and the South Bronx. The only existing CLT in New York City, the Cooper Square CLT, is currently working to expand its housing stock with the inclusion of formerly church-owned properties.
At the Fearless Cities conference hosted at NYU over the summer, a panel discussion on community land trusts sparked so much interest that the room overfilled. Participants from Detroit, Baltimore, and Portland listened closely to practitioners at varying levels of establishing community-held land, asking questions about how to take control from local developers and get public officials behind their causes. The excitement was palpable, and points to a larger coalition of grassroots organizations working to save their neighborhoods from rising rents and speculation.
Yet this undercurrent of hope is difficult to voice while the movement remains fixed in opposition. Reforming real estate and development and speculation in New York is a Herculean task, but as tenants face worse and more expensive conditions year after year, there seem to be no other viable alternatives. The expiration of the state’s rent control laws in June could mark a pivotal turning point in statewide legal protections for tenants, all the more possible with a newly-elected Democratic majority. But one way or another, the campaign for better housing is here to stay.
Brown, Nicole. “Close Rent Law ‘Loopholes’ to Address Housing Crisis: Advocates.” Am New York, Am New York, 16 Feb. 2018.
Jones, Sarah. “The Rising Politics of (Too Damn High) Rent.” The New Republic, The New Republic, 16 July 2018.
Plitt, Amy. “Cynthia Nixon Unveils Housing Policy Aimed at Protecting New York Renters.” Curbed NY, Curbed NY, 3 May 2018.
Savitch-Lew, Abigail. “Upstate, Downstate Call on Cuomo for Housing Reforms.” City Limits, City Limits, 2 Mar. 2018.
Tobias, Jimmy. “Meet the Rising New Housing Movement That Wants to Create Homes for All.” The Nation, The Nation, 24 May 2018.
Whitford, Emma. “Photos: New Yorkers Hit The Snowy Streets To Demand Tougher Rent Laws.” Gothamist, WNYC, 16 Nov. 2018.
Whitford, Emma. “The Fight for Universal Rent Control in New York.” Curbed NY, Curbed NY, 23 Aug. 2018.