April 10, 2023
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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 32, No.1 (Jan – March 2023)
New York is in a housing crisis by nearly every metric. Rent is unaffordable. Evictions are rising to pre-pandemic levels. Over 100,000 students in the New York City public school system are homeless. Housing precarity brings with it a host of other social and economic problems: poor educational outcomes, weakened job security, worsened health, and an overall decline in public safety (Weaver, 2023).
This crisis, like all crises of capital, falls hardest on Black and low-income New Yorkers – especially Black women. Over two-thirds of Black New Yorkers rent their homes (Cornell ILR Eviction Filings Dashboard). According to the Community Service Society, Black renters are the most vulnerable to eviction and the most likely to experience housing discrimination, including discriminatory evictions (Mironova, Stein, & Baiocchi, 2022).
Conventional solutions to the housing crisis generally point in two directions: rental assistance for low-income families and subsidized homeownership for everyone else. Neither of these solutions is working to meet the scale of the crisis today. Paradoxically, rental vouchers are both dramatically underfunded and regularly unused in the marketplace due to high-rents, landlord discrimination against those who pay their rent with public assistance, and more (Office of the New York State Comptroller, 2023). Homeownership is increasingly too costly for middle-class earners while these same earners are also largely left out of renter-based subsidies.
Most critically both of these solutions – not coincidentally interventions that are by and large welcomed by the private homebuilding industry – overlook the importance of tenant-power organizations to creating and sustaining housing stability in the United States. Tenants represent a potent political class – making up the majority of the population in many US cities – and often experience unsafe housing conditions (rent hikes, no heat in a multi-family building, et cetera) collectively. But both rental assistance vouchers and private homeownership individualize and isolate the question of housing affordability to the single household.
By building organizations, tenants can work collectively to win safer living conditions in their homes; neighbors can develop stronger social ties that lead to deeper civic participation and healthier overall neighborhoods. And finally, tenants can create a political constituency and leverage their organization to pick (and win) political fights.
As rental housing prices skyrocket nationwide, progressive organizers must pursue policy interventions – expansion of rent control and recognition of the right to form a tenant union – that first stabilize renters as a class of people and second encourage political organization of renters as a group.
Rental assistance vouchers isolate individual tenants who struggle to find a landlord who will accept their voucher. If housed, voucher-holders cannot complain about neglected repairs (lest they risk losing rental assistance) and if their neighbors form a tenant association and go on a rent strike, they are unable to choose to stop payment. They are aggressively means-tested. Securing and staying on a voucher requires immense intrusion – from your landlord and the government – into one’s personal life.
Inversely: 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. Rent control, unlike vouchers, is a universal public policy that does not require regular (and often intrusive) individual income certification. It typically covers buildings, not people.
People experience both the might of the real estate industry and the benefits of rent control collectively and politically: New York tenants often say that real estate is like oil in Texas – a politically potent industry that donates prolifically to advance its agenda. In 1997, New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition launched their “I’m a Tenant and I Vote” campaign for rent control: a clear message to Albany politicians about the power renters could wield or organize to impact their political future (Drier and Pitkoff, 1997). This message is still true today as New York State considers “Good Cause Eviction” to expand basic rent regulatory measures to 4 million tenants (Tomao, 2023).
No other public policy for renters offers these same characteristics – simultaneously encouraging organizing at the building or neighborhood level, creating political institutions led by tenants, and allowing tenants to threaten electoral power.
Local fights for rent control are alleviating the housing crisis while simultaneously creating and strengthening political constituencies and developing tenant-led organizations in real time across New York State. When waged successfully, legislative advocacy campaigns should build organization just as much as they win policies to create it. We can look at Kingston, NY and Albany, NY for two recent examples.
In June 2019, New York State overturned decades of landlord-friendly public policy and passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. In addition to strengthening New York’s version of rent control, known as Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA), the bill gave each city, town, and municipality in New York State the power to opt-in to the system. Previously this right was limited to New York City and its surrounding three counties.
Between June 2019 and December 2019 eviction rates across the state dropped by 18% (Legal Aid Society, 2020). Organizers at the time noted the potential for local political campaigns (Lewis, 2019). It took a little longer for the impact on local organizing to come to fruition. In October 2022 Kingston became the first city in New York State to opt-in to rent control since the state legislature granted them the authority in 2019.
This decision immediately paused rent hikes and lawful evictions for 1,200 homes in the city. Just a month later the newly appointed “Rent Guidelines Board” (RGB) voted to reduce rents by 15% (a decision currently tied up in courts). Along the way, the Stony Run Tenants Union was born.
New York State rent stabilization law covers buildings with 6 or more apartments built before 1974. Municipalities that opt-in to rent control are directed to create a board – appointed by local government – that is charged with adjusting rents annually for apartments eligible for rent stabilization. Stony Run, with 266 apartments, is the largest building in Kingston that is eligible for rent stabilization. In the face of staggering rent hikes, unlivable conditions, and against the backdrop of runaway gentrification, tenants at Stony Run led the fight to implement rent control in the Fall of 2022 (Roshan 2022).
When it came time for the Mayor of Kingston – Steve Noble, a progressive with ties to the Working Families Party – to appoint a local Rent Guidelines Board, Carolina Soto threw her name in the ring. Soto is a leader on the Stony Run Tenant Union organizing committee and is facing a 30% rent hike. With the support of her union and other local progressive organizations (for full disclosure, all affiliates of my organization, Housing Justice for All), Soto was appointed. In public hearing after public hearing, Soto was able to be a voice for renters in Kingston and successfully steered the board towards voting for a 15% rent roll back.
Though the rent-rollback decision is currently held up in court, the tenants of Stony Run are still effectively wielding their power as organized renters. Their landlord – Aker Management – is attempting to bring in new financing to their homes. The loan requires Kingston Common Council approval, and without a sign off from the TU, the landlord doubts their bid will be successful (For the Many, 2023).
About an hour up I-87, in the City of Albany, tenants at Bleeker Terrace are likewise experimenting with both the limits and the potential that rent control legislation poses for tenant organizing. While the tenant movement successfully expanded the ETPA in 2019, it did not win a bill called “Good Cause Eviction” – a critical piece of legislation that would have expanded the benefits of rent regulation to buildings excluded from the program. As a result, 4 million renters who live in small buildings or in cities that have not opted in to the ETPA remain vulnerable to retaliatory evictions and rent hikes.
In response, tenants in Albany, NY launched a campaign at the Albany Common Council to win Good Cause locally. They enlisted a local landlord and Common Council Member – Alfredo Balarin – as their lead sponsor and were successful at winning the law. Good cause is not rent control and does not create the same participatory “rent guidelines board” processes rent control does – no local board is forced to set rents. However, tenants are afforded the right to renew their lease and rent increases over an “unreasonable” amount (defined by law as more than 5%) are determined tantamount to an eviction. After the Albany Common Council passed this law, 4 other cities in New York followed suit.
In the summer of 2021, in the height of the pandemic, a New Jersey company known as M3 Management bought Bleeker Terrace – an apartment complex in Albany, NY. They immediately moved to hike the rents, but tenants organized a union. The incident that truly sparked their energy was not the rent hikes, but the decision by the landlord to break up an annual tenant barbeque and family day with armed guards bearing AR-15 rifles (Hughes 2022). The right to renew your lease is not only about housing costs and living conditions – it is also about who gets to make decisions about how we live. The dignity to make decisions about your day to day life – to acquire a pet or paint your bedroom walls or have a picnic with your neighbors – is something half of New York’s families are often denied on the basis of their property ownership status.
But using Albany’s local Good Cause law as a shield, the Bleeker Tenants Union members were able to collectively negotiate for much needed repairs and win an agreement for just 5% annual rent increases (see: https://housingjusticeforall.org/tenants-at-major-albany-housing-complex-claim-victory-against-corporate-landlord-owner/).
The incident with AR-15s alone should demonstrate the threat that organized tenants pose to the real estate industry. But literal threats of violence are not the only tool of the real estate elite: they also have a seemingly endless reserve of lawyers willing to do their bidding. The industry sued the City of Albany over its local Good Cause laws and was successful. In the weeks preceding the decision from the New York State Court of Appeals (the State’s highest court) Bleeker Terrace Tenants were once again served with 27% rent hikes. The judges of the State of Appeals were nearly all appointed by Democratic Party Governors in the pocket of real estate, eager to oppose tenants’ rights.
This time, however, the tenants were not alone: the leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly Housing Committees showed up to support the Bleeker Terrace Tenant Union the day of the decision, vowing to the press pass state legislation that would make the local decision moot. This is a dramatic change of fortune from a legislative body that had just three years ago refused to entertain the very same policy at the state level. (Lucas, 2023).
The stories of the Tenant Unions at Stony Run and Bleecker Terrace also reveal the weakness of the tenant movement. In neither instance were the tenant unions able to sustain the permanent bureaucratic power required to maintain legislative victories. In Albany, local efforts were overturned within 18 months by state law. In Kingston, after a spirited public debate the council voted – over the Tenant Unions’ objections – to approve a state loan to the landlord.
Both of these cases demonstrate the vast power executive governance at the state level has over local and city-based policy interventions – to create courts, for example. But the answer is not local control (why should a tenant in Cohoes have fewer rights than a tenant in Albany?) – it is a statewide policy. And tenants must be able to organize into a cohesive organization at the state level in order to match the power that the real estate industry can wield in Albany.
As the United States struggles with a housing crisis – every day more pronounced – many are emphasizing the need for a social housing system, built on human needs rather than profit. This worthy goal is also out-of-reach while real estate capital continues to control our executive office. The call for social housing is really a call for a new type of government: one that doesn’t want to advance loans to price gouging companies or give a carte-blanche to landlords who threaten tenants with retaliation. This is to say: the path to social housing doesn’t run through technocratic public policy changes alone – it requires tenant organization to build, win, and wield political power.
Changing the housing politics in the United States requires mass action. Rent control campaigns are the path. By reducing the speculative power of real estate – on tenants and buildings as a class – we can change the profit and power dynamic between tenants and landlords. By encouraging tenant-led political organization, rent control campaigns contribute to creating the government infrastructure required to make social-housing interventions durable and successful. Renters have the opportunity – through building tenant unions and through campaigning for rent control – to create a path to social housing. The future is for the (organized) tenants.
Weaver, R. (2023). No Shelter, No Safety: How Rising Evictions in New York Could Pose a Risk to Public Safety — And How Eviction Prevention is Violence Prevention. Cornell Industrial Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab.
Cornell ILR Eviction Filings Dashboard. (2023).
Drier, P & Pitcoff, W. (1997). I’m a Tenant and I Vote! Shelterforce (July 1).
Hughes, Steve. 2022. Residents angered over Capital Crossings security guard’s armed response to grilling complaint. Times Union (June 25).
Legal Aid Society. (2020). Press Release (January 6).
Lewis, Sam. (2019). Things Are Only Going to Get Worse for Developers. Jacobin Magazine (June 20). Office of the New York State Comptroller. (2023).
Mironova, O, Stein, S, & Baiocchi,G.( 2022). Racial Justice and the Right to Remain: The Case for Good Cause Eviction Protection. Housing Justice for All. Policy Brief.
Roshan, A. (2022). How Kingston Won A Rent Reduction – And Why They Might Lose It. Next City.
Tomao, P. (2023). Is the NY Democratic Party ready to stop ignoring renters? City & State New York.
Lucas, D. (2023). City of Albany’s “good cause” eviction measure is rejected as advocates look to legislature. WAMC (March 2).
Cea Weaver (firstname.lastname@example.org) is campaign coordinator at Housing Justice For All (formerly Upstate/Downstate Alliance).