By Brian Grady and Patrick Ayers
For the whole modern history of New York, working people have grappled with a crisis of housing affordability and quality. Massive, dense, and unequal, the city magnifies the deep inequalities of American capitalism, making housing a near-constant flashpoint in city politics. In recent years, the housing situation has only worsened.
The problem is not limited to New York, or even big cities. The private, for-profit capitalist housing market is failing working-class people across the U.S and the world. According to a 2017 Harvard study, the crisis in the U.S. has significantly worsened in last ten years. Fortunately, working class tenants are fighting back. In Oregon, the housing movement recently won a statewide cap on rent increases, the first such bill in the U.S.
In New York, tenants and housing advocates across the state are gearing up this year to demand that the state’s rent laws governing rent stabilization and rent control be protected and expanded. With 63,000 homeless people sleeping in city shelters each night – the most since the Great Depression – and working-class neighborhoods suffering the relentless threat of displacement, the fight will likely mark a critical turning point in the fight for affordable housing in New York.
Why We Need Real Rent Reform Now
Under the banner of Housing Justice for All, progressive activist groups across the state are fighting for a platform of reforms called “universal rent control.” This phrase can seem vague and unclear, but the general idea is to expand existing restrictions on the ability of landlords to increase rents to all apartments across the state. Right now, the laws are limited in various ways. For example, they only apply to buildings of six apartments or more in New York City and three surrounding counties. On top of that, countless apartments have been deregulated through loopholes in the law.
The bills being put forward would expand rent stabilization throughout New York State, close the loopholes, make it easier for tenants to sue landlords for unsafe living conditions, and give renters across the state stronger protection against evictions. If won, this would represent a major step forward – although a long-term solution will require deeper, systemic change
In debates over rising rents in other parts of the U.S., New York is often held up by landlord lobbies as an example of how rent regulations “do not work.” While certainly not a panacea, rent regulations worked well for working class residents for decades and allowed millions of families to stay in their homes.
Compare that to the incredibly precarious situation that most tenants, who live in non-regulated apartments, face today. Between December 2009 and June 2017, rents in New York City increased at a rate of about four percent per year, while wages increased by only about two percent per year. For the lowest-income New Yorkers, the situation is even worse: apartments at the bottom fifth of the market saw their rents increase nearly five percent per year, while wages remained stagnant. The predictable outcome of this deregulated market has been ongoing displacement and increasing homelessness, especially in low-income and working class neighborhoods.
Winning Rent Control
Rent control was first won by working people in New York City in 1947 and the regulations initially covered all rental apartments in the city. At the time, the labor movement in New York City was at its peak of power. 1947 itself was a high point of mass strikes that paralyzed the city and demonstrated the enormous power of working people. This gave tremendous confidence to working class tenants to fight for improvements in housing through mass action.
Following New York’s financial crisis in 1975 and setbacks of the labor movement, the establishment went on a three-decade offensive against all of the gains made by working people in the preceding period. Housing regulations were rolled back.
As of today, the city has about 3.4 million total housing units, including 2.2 million rentals. Of the rental units, more than 50 percent are subject to some form of rent regulation (“rent stabilization” or “rent control”).
The near-mythical “rent control” applies only to apartments built before 1947 and continuously occupied by the same family since 1971. Only 22,000 such units remain. The remaining rent regulated units are subject to “rent stabilization,” which means, in a nutshell, that their rent increases in New York City are set yearly by the Rent Guidelines Board, and that rent stabilized tenants in good standing are guaranteed yearly lease renewals.
Loopholes Gut Tenant Protections
In most cities, this high level of rent regulation sound like a major progressive achievement. But in New York, these numbers represent historic a loss of about 282,000 rent stabilized units since a key change to the rent laws in 1993 as well as the expiration of certain tax break programs. The key loosening of the rent laws, known as “vacancy deregulation,” currently allows rent regulated apartments to become market rate after their legal rent reaches $2,733.
The law has had particularly pernicious effects since it was coupled in 2003 with a law allowing “vacancy bonuses,” which allow landlords to increase the rents on rent stabilized apartments by up to 20 percent every time a tenant moves out.
Tenants in many gentrifying working-class neighborhoods have also been forced out through the so-called “preferential rent scam,” in which landlords charge a rent below the legal rent and then raise the rent to the legal rent when the area becomes more desirable. Many tenants have seen unexpected rent increases of hundreds of dollars after living in their homes for years or even decades.
These effects are compounded by another dangerous loophole allowing landlords to pass along the costs of individual apartment improvements and building-wide major capital improvements to their rent stabilized tenants in the form of permanent rent increases. Without proactive state regulation, it’s up to tenants to prove any fraudulent expenses on the part of their landlords.
So what’s the upshot? Landlords get rewarded for moving tenants in and out as quickly as possible, for making fraudulent claims about the cost of renovations, and for charging as much rent as the law will allow. With gentrification now seeping deep into working-class neighborhoods throughout the city, rent stabilized tenants are subject to widespread harassment, unaffordable rent increases, and evictions.
Particularly hard hit have been neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, and the Bronx, which are rife with stories of landlords failing to fix things like broken heat, leaks, mold, and rat infestations in hopes that rent-stabilized tenants will leave. Landlords have also harassed tenants with round-the-clock construction noise and dust, knocked holes in ceilings and walls without repairing them, and have offered buyouts and illegal eviction notices to rent-stabilized tenants to get them to leave apartments they have lived in for years.
Real Rent Reform, a city coalition fighting for regulation to close these loopholes, reported in February 2018 that 10,000 existing rent stabilized units could be lost by the time the rent laws come up for renewal in June 2019. If the loopholes are not closed, they will effectively destroy a policy tool that has promoted permanent housing and neighborhood stability for generations of New Yorkers.
Perhaps the most critical limitation of the state rent laws has been that they apply only within the New York City and in Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland counties. This has allowed real estate interests and upstate politicians to mischaracterize rent regulations as a “downstate” issue and cut across demands to protect tenant protections.
But the state’s housing crisis extends well beyond New York City and its suburbs. Nearly half of tenants statewide are considered “rent-burdened,” paying at least 30% of their income toward rent. A substantial share of tenants, about a quarter, are severely rent-burdened, paying nearly 50% of their income in rent. And upstate tenants often lack many protections afforded even to unregulated renters in New York City, such as “just cause” evictions and access to housing court. It is therefore critical that any movement to protect and expand rent regulation include tenants statewide.
Closing these loopholes and expanding the rent laws would be a huge step forward. However, even with the strongest rent regulations housing will still be dominated by the private, for-profit capitalist housing market that treats housing as something to profit from instead of a basic right. We need to link the struggle for stronger rent laws to a bigger struggle of working people to fight for a socialist society based on meeting the needs of people, not profit.
Read more about the coming battle to strengthen New York’s rent laws and prospects for winning here.