The Nation: In the Heart of Real-Estate Power, a Housing Movement Nears Victory

By Jimmy Tobias
May 30, 2019

On a mild spring evening in March, not far from the screech of the M train, Martina Romero climbed onto the stoop of her six-story tenement, clasped a microphone, and decried the ever-rising rents that threaten to displace her family of five. “I work to support my family, and I need to pay for my four kids, not just for rent,” she said in Spanish, staring out at scores of fellow renters who had turned out for a rally at her building in southern Williamsburg in Brooklyn. “That is why I am fighting, so that I won’t get any more rent increases.”

As her audience howled and hissed, Romero described how her landlord exploited a loophole in New York City’s rent regulations to hike her monthly payments by hundreds of dollars. She denounced the slithering gentrification that threatens to strangle immigrant families like hers. And she reaffirmed her commitment

to an ongoing rent strike that her neighbors launched last November to stop their landlord from pricing them out of their homes. A dozen families in her complex have vowed to withhold their money while they demand repairs to their building and raise awareness about the need to close the rent-regulation loopholes that have pushed the tenants’ housing costs ever higher.

“I know many other tenants like me are struggling, and I know that we will win,” said Romero, an upbeat 35-year-old who hails from San Juan Tejupa, Mexico. “We have to win. We need universal rent control now.”

A few days earlier and hundreds of miles away, a 45-year-old white woman named Maribeth Sheedy sat down in the den of her home in the upstate village of Akron, New York, and condemned the ever-rising rents that threaten to displace her family, too.

“We were bought by [a new landlord] in November 2017,” she said of the mobile-home park where she and more than 100 neighbors make monthly payments to stow their homes. “They marched right in here, decided to raise our rent from a low of $265 a month to $360 a month, and told us if we didn’t pay, we’d be evicted.” The park where Sheedy lives is a quiet neighborhood of winding streets, ample lawns, and single-story homes that have stood in place for decades. Many residents there are elderly and on fixed incomes, and most of them cannot afford to relocate. She said the park’s inhabitants are terrified that their new landlord, a Florida-based real-estate company called Sunrise Capital Investors, will continue to raise rents, ultimately forcing them into homelessness.

“We can’t sleep at night,” said Ron Barone, a retired auto repairman and one of Sheedy’s neighbors.

The sudden upheaval in her community led Sheedy and other residents to start organizing. They knocked on their neighbors’ doors, wrote letters to state legislators, courted the press, and even traveled to Florida to try to meet with the property’s owners. They were rebuffed. Finally, this past January, she and a few neighbors formed the Akron Mobile Home Park Tenants Association to defend their homes.

“And then we decided, with the rent increase coming, that we were going to do a rent strike,” said Sheedy, a garrulous Akron native who now serves as the tenant association’s president. “And it was probably the scariest moment of my life. We had a meeting last November. I told everyone the risks and asked them what they wanted to do, and pretty much everyone raised their hands, and we have maintained 50 percent of the park on rent strike ever since.”

Sheedy said the tenants’ association will continue to hold its ground until the landlord agrees to meet with residents and negotiate a new rent policy in good faith.

Romero and Sheedy—one a janitor in bustling Brooklyn, the other a mortgage-company employee in a rural area 25 miles from Lake Ontario—are two threads in a sprawling tapestry of tenant revolt unfurling across New York. They are activists in a growing struggle against an acute housing crisis that threatens the economic survival of renters in every corner of the Empire State.

Facts and figures can’t do the crisis justice, but here are a few: Roughly 90,000 people experience homelessness in New York State on any given day. Between 2007 and 2018, the state’s homeless population surged 46 percent, the highest such increase in the nation, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Approximately half of New York’s 3.36 million tenant households are rent-burdened, meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent—and these households exist in all corners of the state. While, as of 2012, the Bronx held the record for the highest proportion of rent-burdened tenants, at 57.6 percent, rural Greene County followed closely behind, with a rent-burden rate of 57.5 percent, trailed by Ulster, Rockland, and Orange counties. There is little sign of relief.

This crisis is not confined to New York City or even to New York State. In Capital City, a new book on the spreading urban-housing crisis, author Samuel Stein writes that there is “not a single county in the country where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford the average two-bedroom [rental home].”

The disappearance of affordable rent has many and complex causes. On the one hand, wages in this country have been stagnant for decades. On the other, demand for rental housing is on the upswing, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, which, by 2016, had dragged homeownership in this country to a 50-year low. Meanwhile, corporate capital is on a real-estate buying spree. In 2016, 37 percent of home sales in the United States were made to absentee investors, including “banks, hedge funds and private equity firms like Blackstone—now the world’s largest landlord,” Stein writes. The transformation of housing into an ATM for Wall Street at a time when wages are flat and renter demand is high has backed tenants into a corner. “Average move-in rents in the United States have more than doubled over the last two decades.”

In New York, this crisis has been taking shape as the state’s rent-stabilization system continues to crumble. Established in the late 1960s and ’70s, it limits annual rent increases and offers other protections for hundreds of thousands of tenants in New York City and three surrounding counties. (The rest of the state is out of luck.) In recent decades, landlords and developers have pressured lawmakers in Albany to poke the system full of loopholes, and as a result, the city has hemorrhaged more than 152,000 regulated units since 1993. This deregulation frenzy has helped fuel the rampant gentrification that is spreading across the metropolitan area and now threatens the working-class backbone of our country’s economic and cultural capital.

“The loopholes embedded in New York’s rent-stabilization program today are more than just policy. They are the legalization of fraud,” said Aaron Carr, the executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, a watchdog group in the state. “New York’s broken laws and weak enforcement have resulted in a culture of real-estate corruption.” Look out your door, he suggested, and you can see symptoms of this corruption throughout the city: unlawful rent hikes, tenant harassment, increasing homelessness, inept government oversight, and a steady influx of real-estate cash into the campaign coffers of powerful politicians, including Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Bringing the message home: Tenant activists rally their neighbors to fight for fair rents. (Courtesy of Benjamin Fang)

Crisis and corruption—together they’ve ignited an inferno of tenant anger. In Brooklyn and Buffalo, in Kingston and Queens, in Albany and Akron, one witnesses the outrage in rent strikes, at rallies, and in a surge of radical organizing. A movement is on the march. Under the auspices of a newly formed coalition called the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance, more than 60 progressive grassroots groups have launched the most daring renters’-rights campaign to hit the state in decades. The organizers have dubbed it Housing Justice for All, and they’re calling on the state legislature to pass a slate of bills that would supercharge rent protections in New York.

The eight bills in the package span a range of interventions. Among other things, they would permanently close loopholes in New York’s rent-stabilization system, allow the system to expand to the entire state, and offer basic universal rights to tenants everywhere, including protections against arbitrary eviction. If such bills passed in Albany, “evictions would go down, homelessness would start to go down, entire communities would be stabilized in the face of gentrification,” said Cea Weaver, the alliance’s campaign coordinator. “It would be so good.”

Of course, solving the housing crisis will require more than mere government regulation, and activists across the country are also keen to promote more visionary solutions. But strengthened rent protections are an essential element in their struggle to put an end to mass evictions, gentrification, and other social ills. They see such measures as a front-line defense against predatory landlords and profiteers, and a corrective to the power imbalance that so often characterizes the landlord-renter relationship.

The Upstate-Downstate Alliance is pushing the state to pass its reforms by June 15, before the state’s rent-stabilization laws expire—and for the first time in years, tenant advocates have reason to hope, in part because Democrats gained control of all three branches of government in the state this year. Hope also stems from the hard-won resurgence of a muscular progressive movement in New York, where grassroots activists in the space of a single year have helped pass what some are calling New York City’s own Green New Deal and defeat Amazon’s bid to build a second headquarters in the borough of Queens.

Yet even amid these changes, the alliance faces towering obstacles. Preeminent among them is the mighty political muscle of New York’s real-estate industry. From 2000 to 2016, the industry doled out more than $80 million in campaign contributions to state-level politicians in New York. In 2018 alone, real-estate interests poured nearly $5 million into Cuomo’s reelection campaign, according to the research organization Vote Smart, and landlords and developers are consistently among his top donors. Apart from their influence at the governor’s mansion, industry trade groups like the Real Estate Board of New York and the Rent Stabilization Association spent more than $200,000 to lobby members of the state legislature during the first two months of 2019—an uptick from previous years. Most recently, an industry front group called Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, which is backed by REBNY and the RSA, has started running a pricey social-media and TV ad campaign that vilifies the rent reforms being considered in Albany.

Still, New York’s housing-justice movement is undeterred. Its leaders say they are prepared for the political brawl of a lifetime.

“We can’t underestimate the real-estate industry’s ability to pour in cash to buy up legislators and block the tenants’ movement,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a key group in the alliance. “The industry is going to spend as much as it can raise to stop the expansion of rent regulations in New York. It will be a huge fight.”

Well before dawn on an icy Wednesday in January, two dozen renters piled into a bus near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and embarked for the Empire State Plaza, an austere steel and concrete complex in Albany where Cuomo and the state legislature conduct the people’s business. As the bus rolled north on Interstate 87, tenants from Rochester, Buffalo, and Kingston were loading into cars, vans, and buses of their own, preparing to converge on the state capital and deliver their demands to New York’s most powerful politicians.

By noon, loud chants filled the vaulted lobby outside Cuomo’s executive suite as roughly 100 tenants with the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance pressed their government for new protections.

“Whose housing crisis?” the crowd chanted. “Cuomo’s housing crisis!”

“Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a human right!” the demonstrators yelled, as organizers with groups like Make the Road New York, VOCAL New York, the Kingston Tenants Union, the Rochester Tenants Union, and the Akron Tenants Association gave impassioned speeches. After delivering a pro-renter petition with more than 3,000 signatures to Cuomo’s office, the tenants fanned out across the Capitol to call on key political leaders to sign on to the full slate of Housing Justice for All legislation.

Every Tuesday since then, the tenants have returned to Albany to lobby the legislature. And they have been making noise at other venues as well, trying to make themselves ubiquitous, whether by marching in the streets or persuading city councils across the state to pass resolutions in support of new rent regulations.

“There is a real hunger to see tenant protections opened up to people across the state, especially in upstate New York,” said Juanita Lewis, an organizer with the group Community Voices Heard who recently worked to persuade the City Council of Newburgh, in the Hudson River Valley, to pass a resolution supporting strengthened rent regulations in the state.

Housing advocates say they have rarely seen a grassroots effort like it—a class-based, community-centered movement for housing justice that is organized across racial, gender, and geographic lines.

“I have been [organizing for renters’ rights] since 1970, but this is the first time there has ever been a real push for rent control from actual grassroots groups that represent both upstate and downstate tenants,” said Michael McKee, a longtime housing organizer and the treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee. “It is just an incredibly exciting development.”

The alliance’s housing-justice campaign has not emerged in isolation. It is best understood as one front of a national uprising against predatory landlords and for tenant protections. As The Nation previously reported, this movement is on the march in cities and states across the country: in California, where a statewide tenant-led campaign is pushing the legislature to enact a package of bills that would prohibit exorbitant annual rent increases and prevent tenants from being evicted arbitrarily; in Oregon, where Governor Kate Brown signed a bill this year that caps how much landlords may raise rent each year, among other provisions; and in Illinois and Colorado, where tenant activists have attempted to pass new legislation that would repeal their states’ long-standing bans on rent control.

Still, New York’s housing movement stands apart, and a victory for the tenants’ movement there could supply a much-needed boost to other activists nationwide. Set in the very heart of real-estate power in the United States, the movement is up against a lobby unlike any other in the nation; just this past March, privately held companies and individual developers helped kill a popular proposal to tax luxury second homes in New York City. At the same time, New York State has an unusually high concentration of renters—nearly half its residents are tenants—and it boasts a vibrant history of housing activism.

Rent stabilization was one of the fruits of this long activist history. According to Michael McKee, a prominent New York tenant advocate, rent stabilization grew out of sustained organizing campaigns by tenants in the mid-1960s to mid-’70s. In those years, tenants in and around New York City were experiencing drastic rent increases, rampant evictions, and low vacancy rates, and they wanted protections. Specifically, they wanted New York City to expand its vigorous rent-control system, which imposed strict limits on rent increases in buildings built before 1947 and contained strong protections against eviction. But then-Mayor John Lindsay had other ideas. He didn’t want to expand the city’s strict rent-control system and instead, with the support of the City Council, established in 1969 a much weaker form of rent regulation that we know today as rent stabilization. The Republican-controlled state government soon embraced the city’s new rent-stabilization system and, in 1974, in response to a new outburst of tenant organizing, passed the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA), which regulated hundreds of thousands of apartments and expanded New York City’s rent-stabilization system to nearby Nassau, Rockland, and Westchester counties.

At the time, tenant advocates weren’t thrilled with the legislation, which they deemed “too weak,” McKee writes in an unpublished history of New York’s rent-stabilization system. Yet in retrospect, he adds, the “ETPA must be seen as a huge tenant victory.”

The ETPA, like New York’s earlier rent-stabilization bill, was crucial in establishing the system of rent regulation that is still in place. There are about 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the New York metropolitan area, the vast majority of them in the city in buildings built before 1974. Approximately 2.5 million tenants in the city benefit from the protections. On average, according to the Housing Rights Initiative, tenants in rent-stabilized units save 30 percent on their rents, compared with tenants in market-rate apartments.

“When people think about rent regulation, they often think of it only as a way to limit rent increases, but it does much more than that. It also protects people from arbitrary evictions, because it requires a landlord to have a good reason before they evict someone, and that is huge,” said Judith Goldiner, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York. “Length of tenure is what rent regulation really gives you. It allows you to really be in a neighborhood, to have connections there. It allows your kids to go to neighborhood schools, it allows you to go to local hospitals, and it allows you to have neighbors and friends to help you out. It provides a sense of security that those without rent regulations don’t have, and this is hugely important, not just for tenants but for the city as a whole.”

Yet New York’s rent-stabilization system is under siege, and it has been for decades. From the very beginning, New York City landlords were allowed to largely self-police compliance with the regulations and, according to McKee, worked constantly to undermine the system. In the 1990s, the real-estate industry mobilized to gut rent stabilization, scoring their first hit in 1993, when Senate Republicans engineered several amendments weakening the rent laws. In 1997, they successfully pushed for a loophole called the vacancy bonus, which lets landlords raise rents by 20 percent (sometimes even more) every time a tenant moves out of a rent-stabilized unit.

Such loopholes have been devastating to the state’s rent-stabilization system. Aaron Carr of the Housing Rights Initiative said the flaws in the system have led to widespread fraud and predatory speculation. “For landlords, the name of the game is to buy up a building and push out as many tenants as possible in the shortest time period possible and remove the apartments from rent stabilization,” he said. In recent years, Carr’s organization has filed dozens of class-action lawsuits against landlords in New York, arguing that they have fraudulently inflated construction costs or otherwise exploited loopholes to illegally raise prices on tenants. A recent state audit of 1,100 landlords found that in as many as 40 percent of cases, landlords could not legally justify past rent increases at their stabilized units.

As pocked and challenging as the rental landscape has become in New York City, Maribeth Sheedy and her neighbors in western New York are contending with the largest loophole of all. The state’s rent regulations don’t apply to the vast majority of its counties. Scores of renters, in places like Rochester, Albany, Buffalo, and Kingston, are excluded from those protections.

The absence of renters’ rights in most of the state is part of what allows private real-estate investors to march into mobile-home parks and inflate rents as if they were party balloons, no matter who gets hurt in the process. The tenant-backed good-cause-eviction bill, as well as the expansion of rent stabilization to the entire state, would help ameliorate the plight of mobile-home residents and others.

Gail Travers is one of Sheedy’s neighbors and an early member of the Akron Mobile Home Park Tenants Association. Nine years ago, Travers’s daughter died in a car accident, orphaning her only son. Travers took him in. Then last year, in a desperate bid to start afresh and live closer to remaining family, she sold her longtime home, retired from nursing, and moved with her grandson to Akron. She figured the Akron Mobile Home Park, with its reputation as a stable and affordable community near a quality school, would be a good place to settle. For many years, rent increases at the park had been $10, $15, sometimes $20 annually.

Travers moved into the mobile-home park last September. In December, residents received letters from their new landlord informing them of rent hikes of as much as $95 a month, with more increases planned.

“That was, to me, catastrophic,” said the 66-year-old Travers, her voice trembling. “It made me doubt everything that I had done…. If it was just me, it would be one thing, but I have a 13-year-old to look after.” She said she fears the worst should her rent continue to rise and that she and her grandson “are going to be homeless.”

Sunrise Capital Investors, which bought the mobile-home park, said that “residents were notified of lot rent increases more than one full year before they went into effect” and that the company is “committed to providing affordable housing for residents in the village of Akron for years to come.”

Travers, Sheedy, and Martina Romero all said they want the same things. They want affordability. They want stability. They want to feel safe in their homes. And so, out of necessity, they and their neighbors are agitating in Albany.

The push to enact new rent regulations comes at a politically fortuitous time for the tenants’ movement. During the 2018 statewide elections, a slew of left-wing candidates, many of whom rejected real-estate-industry campaign contributions, swept into office and increased the influence of New York progressives just as Democrats regained control of the state Senate for the first time in a decade. They include people like Julia Salazar, a democratic-socialist senator from Brooklyn; Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, a longtime public-interest lawyer and housing advocate, from the East Side of Manhattan; and Zellnor Myrie, a senator from central Brooklyn who ran on a housing-justice agenda and is one of the movement’s chief allies in Albany.

Epstein said in an interview that this is “a really powerful moment for the tenants’-rights movement…. We are at a place where tenants across the state are coming together. The Senate, Assembly, and governor have all expressed willingness to strengthen the rent laws. And it is just [a matter of] figuring out how far and strong we can make these protections for people.”

It’s true: The legislature is sending pro-renter signals. In a statement to The Nation, the Senate Democrats, who now exert real influence over the fate of legislation, said that the “Senate understands that for too long the scales have been tilted against tenants” and affirmed that Democratic senators “intend to advance a comprehensive legislative agenda shortly that will provide the strongest rent laws in our state’s history.” In early April, meanwhile, the powerful Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, went public with support for a package of bills that closely reflects the legislative agenda of the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance. The only thing missing was his endorsement of good-cause-eviction legislation, though Heastie said in an interview that such legislation “is still on the table.”

And Cuomo? His press secretary, Caitlin Girouard, told The Nation that “the governor is fully committed to working with the legislature and tenant community to reform rent regulations, including ending vacancy decontrol and limiting capital-improvement charges, to protect affordable housing and respect tenants’ rights.”

Yet Cuomo continues to have deep ties to the real-estate industry. Since successfully running for governor in 2010, he has taken millions of dollars from individuals and organizations linked to it, including as much as $1 million from limited-liability companies tied to a single firm, Glenwood Management. And real-estate interests have not been pleased with the rent reforms under consideration in Albany.

“Responsible rent reforms protect tenants and owners,” said Frank Ricci, government-affairs director for the Rent Stabilization Association, the influential landlord lobby in New York. “Instead, these legislative proposals fail to create a single new affordable unit or improve vacancy rates where housing is most needed.”

“Moreover,” he added, “the proposals actually decrease the likelihood that new affordable units will be created” by removing “all financial incentives owners have to upgrade or create new housing.”

Whether the housing-justice movement can persuade Cuomo to buck pressure from the real-estate industry and side with renters is the crux of its struggle. And with the June deadline to renew New York’s rent regulations approaching, tenant activists and their allies say they aren’t taking any chances.

“The real-estate industry is not going to take this lying down,” said state Senator Myrie. “We need to keep fighting extremely hard and in a very strategic way to get as many wins as possible.”