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

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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.

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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.

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.”