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The Tenants’ Rights Movement Is Expanding Beyond Big Cities

Renters in New York City have some legal protections and an activist infrastructure. What about the rest of America?

Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa/AP Images

When Lauren Sumahit answered the door of her apartment in Newburgh, New York one summer day last year, she was expecting to find an exterminator to take care of the mice and bedbugs that had become fixtures of the apartment. After months of dealing with pests, a broken and unsafe electrical system, and spotty heating, Sumahit and her husband had reported the conditions to the City of Newburgh’s building code enforcement office, which advised their landlord to send an exterminator and make the necessary repairs. But the day after the Sumahits made the complaint, it wasn’t an exterminator who showed up, it was a messenger—sent by their landlord—to deliver a 30-day eviction notice.

The couple spent the next eight months crammed with their 10-year-old daughter and newborn baby into a motel room—a room that was largely paid for by the county’s Department of Social Services.

Many upstate tenants like Sumahit have little recourse for violations such as these. While tenants in New York City and a handful of other municipalities currently benefit from at least some legal protections, an estimated five million tenants in the state essentially have none. But affordable housing advocates are fighting to change that. On June 15, the state’s renter protection laws are due to expire, and as the housing crisis spreads across the state, the date marks a potential opening to spread tenant protections across the state, too.

In 2000, 40.5 percent of rental households in New York State were “rent burdened,” meaning they paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent. Today, after the foreclosure crisis forced tens of thousands of New Yorkers out of their homes and into the tight rental market, the number of rent-burdened households has climbed to nearly half. Homelessness in the state increased by 43 percent between 2007 and 2017, the highest rate of increase in the country, according to HUD.

New York City’s oft-discussed gentrification problem is hardly the only explanation for these numbers. The eviction rates in small to mid-sized cities like Auburn and Gloversville have surpassed those in New York City. Poughkeepsie’s rate, the highest in the state, is an alarming 71 percent higher. And the share of rent-burdened tenants in many municipalities rivals New York City’s, too. In recent years, rent-burdened Brooklynites have fled upstate to places like Newburgh, Beacon, and Hudson, stressing rental markets, driving up rents, and pricing-out long-term upstate renters.

“No matter what region we travel to, when we talk to tenants in New York State, stories are the same,” said Rebecca Garrard, a housing organizer with Citizen Action of New York, a grassroots advocacy group. Many tenants, she said, “have no opportunity for upward mobility because of their housing situation. [They] are either one health crisis or loss of a job away from homelessness.”

There’s already a foundation in the state, though, on which to build a response to the growing crisis. Currently, 2.5 million tenants living in New York City and three neighboring counties benefit from what is known as “rent stabilization,” a set of laws written to protect against steep and sudden rent increases and arbitrary evictions. But the supply of rent stabilized apartments is steadily dwindling, due to a number of loopholes readily exploited by landlords to bring units up to higher and higher market rates. Since 1993, New York City has lost over 152,000 regulated apartments.

Every four years, as the expiration date of the state’s rent laws approaches, advocates and renters make the trek up to Albany, the state capital, to demand that legislators close these loopholes and strengthen protections. For decades, though, these efforts were largely futile: With the renter crisis most acute in New York City, tenants of the five boroughs were left to plead their case to lawmakers who saw it as someone else’s problem. “Upstate legislators have always considered rent to be a New York City issue,” said Michael McKee, a longtime tenant organizer who serves as the treasurer of Tenants PAC, which works to elect pro-tenant candidates to New York’s state legislature. While these legislators may not have cared about renter protections when it came to winning constituents’ support, McKee said, they did “certainly care about the money.” 

The real estate industry is one of the top donors to political candidates in the state, contributing over $23.5 million to candidates in 2018. By contrast, Tenants PAC contributed just $52,000 to candidates in 2018.

After November, though, the Democratic caucus in the state legislature is much more progressive and much less beholden to real estate cash. And for the first time, they are feeling pressure from a statewide coalition of tenants. The Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance—whose members hail from New York City and its suburbs, up and down the Hudson Valley, and west to the Great Lakes—is pushing a package of nine bills that would, among other things, expand rent protections to the entire state. On Tuesday, more than 2,000 tenants and supporters from 27 municipalities descended on Albany to demand accountability from their elected officials. The protestors’ call for legislators to overcome geographic differences was clear, as the chant “upstate, downstate, housing justice can’t wait” echoed outside the statehouse.  

“NYC can’t win without upstate and upstate can’t win without NYC,” said Kevin Borden, the director of MH Action, which organizes residents of manufactured home communities and is one of the member organizations of the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance. “It doesn’t make sense to fight with one hand behind your back.”

When rent control in the U.S. exists at all, it has been strongest in big cities. In California, the most robust tenant protections are found in or near Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Washington, D.C., nearly 80,000 apartments are rent controlled. The urban bias of these protections mostly dates back to the 1980s and ’90s, when—under pressure from the real estate industry—many states passed laws banning municipalities from enacting new rent restrictions (31 states currently enforce such laws). When these laws were introduced, existing rent control statutes were frozen in situ. But as the renting population and the rents they pay have swelled across cities and towns of all sizes, this antiquated map of protected areas appears increasingly at odds with today’s affordability crisis.

Between 2000 and 2015, the homeownership rate declined in 90 percent of all metropolitan areas. A survey in February by RentCafé found that of the top 20 cities with the largest rent increases, 19 were small cities. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one-fourth of the nation’s most-rural counties have seen a significant increase over the past decade in the number of “severely cost-burdened” households—those spending at least half their income on housing, including renters and owners. Only two big-city counties saw as large an increase—the Bronx, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia.

“The real estate industry set up rent control systems across the country that were dictated at state houses and not in cities,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, a grassroots organization that works in low-income communities of color. “It was intentionally done because they knew that cities had a lot more rental housing and they wanted to water [the protections] down.” For decades, this plan worked as intended, with renters subjected to these laws having little influence over the people making them. But as demand for rent control spreads beyond the cities, the state-level locus of regulatory power takes on a new significance: The possibility of rent regulation on a larger scale.

This is what happened, for example, in Oregon, which passed the nation’s first statewide rent-control bill in February. Because cities in Oregon are banned from adopting their own rent regulations (a law which remains in effect), the only option was to take the fight to the capital. Pressured by constituents, legislators from across the state—representing urban, suburban, and rural districts—voted to cap annual rent increases at 7 percent, a rate still too high to protect the most vulnerable renters, but a crucial precedent for further regulation in Oregon and elsewhere.

But even as the housing crisis blurs the boundaries between urban and rural, boundaries to activism remain. In many small cities and towns, there is essentially no infrastructure for tenant organizing at all. In New York, for example, New York City is home to the only dedicated housing courts in the state. Outside of a state’s major urban centers, renters are often separated by many miles, and transportation can be time consuming and expensive, making broad coalitions difficult to maintain.

And tenants who speak out, especially in smaller communities, are potentially subjecting themselves to harsh retribution. In a city like Newburgh, 70 miles north of New York City, with a population of 28,000, “the minute a tenant says [their landlord’s name], things start to happen,” said Juanita Lewis, the Hudson Valley Organizing Director for Community Voices Heard, a group that advocates for low-income families in New York state. “Someone might get a 30-day eviction notice, someone might get a letter saying, ‘Oh, I heard you were talking about the conditions at a City Council meeting.’”

Perhaps the steepest obstacle is the learning curve for rural and suburban legislators. “There’s a huge amount of misinformation about what some of the legislation does and doesn’t do,” said McKee, referring to common arguments that some rent regulations are a burden to small landlords. “So we’re engaged in a very intensive education effort.”

In a number of states across the country, organizers are conducting similar education campaigns with legislators who’ve long used the “urban-rural divide” as an excuse for siding with the real estate industry over renters. In Colorado, California, and Washington, some rural champions have emerged, but the vast majority of legislators sponsoring such measures still hail from major cities. A bill in Colorado that would have repealed the state’s rent control preemption law narrowly made it out of a state Senate committee last month, with the votes following both partisan and geographic lines: Votes in favor came from Democrats representing voters in or near Denver and Boulder; votes against came from Republicans representing rural districts. Two weeks ago, a state Senate vote on the bill was postponed, effectively forcing it into hibernation until next year.

Pam Phan, an organizer with the Community Alliance of Tenants in Oregon, said that the key to the Oregon bill’s success was to show that constituents’ needs were all the same, regardless of where they lived. Legislators attempting to prove otherwise, according to Phan, were trafficking in false narratives about the effectiveness of rent control and whom it can protect. The tenacity of these narratives is one factor shaping the outcome of the June 15 vote in New York. “What [anti-rent control legislators] say, and it’s not true, is, ‘our problem isn’t affordability, it’s lack of investment,’” said Cea Weaver, director of organizing for the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance. But such a distinction, she argues, is false—across the state, the same rule holds: “Investment without protections means displacement.”