Following New York elections, tenants hit the ground running
Metropolitan Council on Housing

As the first wintry blast of precipitation arrived in the city of New York Thursday, November 15, tenants organized in the upstate-downstate Housing Justice for All coalition rallied in Bowling Green on the southern tip of Manhattan’s financial district.

Shouting “1,2,3,4 — tax the rich and house the poor! 5,6,7,8 — Cuomo works for real-estate!,” they marched under a sea of umbrellas through the snow and slush to Wall Street. With frigid fingers and icy toes, they brought warmth to the cold streets with lively chants and songs, demanding from their newly elected officials #UniversalRentControl and an end to homelessness.

It was the first mass action taken by the coalition since the elections and the first action taken since tenant organizations from around the state came together earlier this year in Rochester for a quarterly planning meeting.

Tenants spoke to one another about their dreadful living conditions. They reviewed planks for their platform, past successes and failures, learned how ideas become laws in “planet Albany,” evaluated their relative power, discussed strategy and tactics, and learned how to engage with media and lobby their elected officials.

Boris Santos of the Democratic Socialists of America pointed out that “there is no bigger constituency in New York City than tenants,” a powerful frontline force against the real-estate industry.

New York rent laws are set to expire on June 15, 2019. Through their organizations, tenants started building, two years ahead of time, to undo anti-tenant loopholes in the rent laws, and to extend protections throughout the state. Coalition members, which include Metropolitan Council on Housing, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), Democratic Socialists of America, Take Back the Land Rochester, Real Rent Reform Campaign, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), MH Action, and many others, have just eight months left to get specific pieces of legislation protecting tenants and communities from displacement passed into law.

Tenants’ organizations played a crucial role in the buildup to the September primary elections, when New Yorkers marched to the polls and removed from power former members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). These were Democrats who were caucusing with Republicans, torpedoing a narrow Democratic majority in the New York State Senate. That meant legislation already passed in the NYS Assembly never got to the floor of the NYS Senate  — protecting Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other corporate-friendly and vacillating Democrats from having to take a clear stand in the war between working people fighting to stay in their homes  and the big landlords and developers who are squeezing them out.

For a year, tenants knocked on doors in IDC members’ districts, talking to their fellow renters about the rent laws and what their elected officials were up to.

To protect tenants’ rights, workers’ rights, voting rights, people of color, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people, every Democrat in the NYS Senate and Assembly — and the Governor — now has to be held accountable to pass this legislation and more.

Tenants did not stop, however, at merely replacing former IDC members with Democrats who have promised to support many of their core demands. Three pro-Trump Congressional Republicans — Dan Donovan representing South Brooklyn and Staten Island, and John Faso and Claudia Tenney in the Hudson Valley — were ousted from the U.S. House of Representatives. They were defeated in the general elections Nov. 6 by people’s forces who fought to elect Max Rose, Antonio Delgado, and Anthony Brindisi. As a result of the elections, more than a quarter of the state’s land has been recovered from climate change denying operatives of the fossil fuel and agricultural industries.

In the NYS Senate, eight seats in South Brooklyn, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley were flipped from red to blue, leaving Democrats with a strong 40-23 majority, alongside a more than two-thirds majority (103-47) in the NYS Assembly.

Progressive forces in New York City also sent self-described socialists and DSA members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar to the U.S. House of Representatives and the NYS Senate, respectively.

With this major shift in the balance of power, tenants’ bills can be passed, but elected officials who have promised to support them will need the support of sustained mobilization from an organized grassroots in order to oppose powerful economic forces represented by big landlords and developers and their organizations. The Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) and the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) are big landlords’ and developers’ main anti-working-class unions.

Since 1974, when rent stabilization laws were put into effect, big landlords and developers have exercised their political power to create loopholes in the law enabling them to remove hundreds of thousands of apartments from rent regulation. These include vacancy decontrol, the vacancy bonus, preferential rents, and major capital improvements (MCIs). The Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) determines how much landlords are allowed to increase stabilized rents each year, which itself regularly becomes a major site of grassroots struggle.

Vacancy decontrol deregulates an apartment once the rent reaches a certain threshold — currently $2,733.75. The vacancy bonus rewards landlords for evictions by allowing them to raise rents 20 percent every time a new tenant moves in, hastening the drive toward deregulation. The “preferential rent” scam is a bait and switch landlords use, giving new tenants a discount on their first years’ rent. The next year, they raise the rent hundreds of dollars to the “legal rent,” initiating another eviction and another 20 percent boost. Tenants are demanding legislation to make preferential rents the legal rent.

MCIs allow big landlords to establish permanent rent hikes whenever they make upgrades to their own buildings. It should be abolished. Over time, tenants collectively pay for landlords’ investments many times over, yet the property continues to remain owned and controlled by people who do not live in the building or the neighborhood.

The coalition is adding additional reforms to their list of demands. This includes giving counties and municipalities control over their own rent laws by repealing or amending the Urstadt law. Urstadt puts local counties and cities at the mercy of the notoriously corrupt, Wall Street- controlled Albany to make changes to their own local rent laws. Similar to the minimum wage, Urstadt could be amended as a minimum requirement for tenants’ protections, while allowing tenants in their local areas to establish stronger protections on their own home turf. In its current configuration, tenants are not able to increase their own housing security without forcing legislative changes to the entire state, a herculean task.

Five million New Yorkers are without any kind of renter protections. #UniversalRentControl would mean removing arbitrary geographic restrictions on the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 (ETPA), allowing all counties and cities across the state to opt-in, and passing “good cause” eviction so that every tenant has the right to a renewal lease with a minimal rent increase.

ETPA gives tenants the right to a renewal lease and puts limits on how much a landlord can raise the rent, but only eight downstate counties are allowed to opt-in. Tenants in Rochester, Kingston, or Buffalo are arbitrarily excluded. The law also only applies to buildings with six units or more.

Owners of manufactured homes are also vulnerable to evictions. While banks hold them hostage with mortgage payments and the threat of foreclosure, residents in these communities also pay rent for the land their homes are sitting on. “Out of state corporate gobblers [are] buying up mobile parks, doubling rents,” an MH Action activist told the coalition in Rochester. “People saying, ‘Maybe if I don’t buy my medicine, I can pay my rent.” These homeowners are demanding the right of first refusal, allowing them to purchase when their parks go on the market.

Tenants also deserve the right to take legal action against their landlords for neglect. Landlords frequently take tenants to court for eviction proceedings, but accountability has only worked one way, to the benefit of those who own the property. Tenants should have more legal power than landlords, not less.

One woman told the story of tenants in Ossining who successfully fought this past September for their right to secure housing. As they marched to the Village Hall demanding a resolution to the housing emergency, the Board of Trustees voted 3-2 to bring the Ossining tenants under the protection of ETPA. Tenants in more than 1,200 apartments are now eligible for legal protections, the largest expansion of rent-stabilized housing in 20 years.

Big landlords and developers claim they are broke, but in reality, they are raking in 41 cents in profit on every dollar they invest. With a remarkably high average rate of profit and absolute control over limited space, and with a high degree of political control over the entire process of development, real-estate is a leech off the entire economy, without producing much of anything, except a proliferation of empty buildings overshadowing homeless people. Jacked up rents lead to jacked up prices, and everyone suffers as a result — everyone, that is, except for Wall Street traders and corporate CEOs.

The state and city claim they are too broke and cannot provide free and low-income housing, but nonetheless, provide billions in subsidies for developers through programs like 421-a. Billions more are about to be handed over to one of the world’s most powerful privately owned corporations for its new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. Besides Amazon’s notoriously cruel labor practices, deep integration into the country’s military-industrial complex, and other highly destructive features, the corporation’s “HQ2” is already showing signs of pushing up rents in the surrounding area, before the first shovel has even hit the dirt.

Rule by a small handful of financial CEOs and corporate directors can only be replaced with rule by working class and oppressed people, who are the vast majority. Bringing an end to the real-estate dictatorship will require more united organization and higher political and class consciousness in our neighborhoods and workplaces, on every urban block and rural lane, from the farmhouses to the warehouses. Now is the time to turn up the grassroots heat, not to simmer it down.


CONTRIBUTOR

Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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