The nail salon in Queens where Mariwvey Ramirez works reopened earlier this month, but the customers have been hesitant to return. “I went back to work for three, four days now, and yesterday they tell me that maybe it is going to close because there is no work, no business,” she said when we first spoke. “And what is going to happen … when here in New York the rents are over two thousand dollars? What should I do?” When we talked again this week, Ramirez said that work remained slow. Her boss had asked her to stay home for her next shift.
New York City’s working class—heralded as heroes today, yesterday pushed out of their communities as an undesirable surplus population to make way for wealthier residents—was already facing a housing crisis, with adequate housing increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable. In 2018, 44 percent of New York renter households paid at least 30 percent of their incomes on rent. Half of those were severely rent-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on housing. Relief is also hard to come by: For a family of three earning less than $30,720 a year—a household that would be classified by the city as “extremely low income”—there are 650 applications for each apartment in the affordable housing lottery.
This was before the pandemic. In the months since, an untold number of New York’s working-class immigrants have lost their jobs, with some social service organizations in the city reporting that upward of 90 percent of their immigrant clients are out of work, according to a study by the Center for an Urban Future. The city comptroller’s office found that 900,000 fewer New Yorkers reported working in May than in February, with job losses mostly concentrated among people of color and young people. Now, with temporary protective measures like rent moratoriums lasting only through the end of the pandemic and enhanced unemployment benefits set to expire (and with millions of undocumented immigrants shut out of many of those protections in the first place), New York City is on the brink of a new phase of its long-festering housing crisis. “They do not have to worry about what we have been through,” Ramirez, who has been on rent strike with other tenants in her building since March, said of the big landlords who own buildings like hers. “They do not worry about what their children are going to eat, what they are going to do, what is going to happen with that.”
The public health crisis and a cascading series of protests against anti-Black racism and state repression have further exposed the city’s deep-seated political and economic problems, piercing the ideological fog masking the exploitative relationships that undergird New York City’s vast concentration of wealth in a few hands. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein argues in The New York Review of Books, “The pandemic itself has called into question the intellectual and political priorities for the city that rose after the 1970s, the New York oriented toward luxury housing, fancy hotels, high finance, and cultural experiences too expensive for most who live here.”
In response, a vocabulary of radical demands has hardened into a set of concrete proposals defining the moment—cancel rent, defund the police and invest in communities, collective bargaining through tenant unions, cooperative housing, fully funded public housing—that also point to a rolling horizon of possibility. Rather than seeking piecemeal repairs from slumlords, tenants and housing organizers have begun to imagine a world without them. “With a pandemic raging, unemployment skyrocketing, and both evictions and foreclosures looming, cities, states, and the federal government need to take decisive action not only to immediately aid tenants but expand the stock of social housing—that is, housing that is affordable to working people, decommodified, and democratically controlled,” Samuel Stein, housing policy analyst for The Community Service Society of New York and author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, told The New Republic. Looking to history as a guide to their radical actions, tenants are on rent strike, demanding rent reductions and experimenting with tenant unions, cooperative housing, building takeovers, and community land trusts. In the face of compounding crises, they see an opportunity to pry open real estate’s grip on the city.
A recent report by Americans for Tax Fairness shows that the wealth of New York’s billionaires increased by $77 billion from March to June. Juxtapose that obscene accumulation of wealth to the $9 billion deficit New York City is facing for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Despite this, Governor Andrew Cuomo balked at calls to tax the wealthy to fill the shortfall that might result in cutbacks to vital services and, after public pressure, offered a mere $100 million in relief through the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. And instead of providing support for renters, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio approved a budget that cuts investment in affordable housing by 40 percent. The mayor has lobbied the State legislature and governor to borrow $5 billion to close the city’s budget gap and, failing to obtain these borrowing powers, has floated the threat of laying off 22,000 municipal workers. (Disclosure: Luis is employed through the city’s Human Resource Administration as communications director for the DemocracyNYC initiative). We have seen this catastrophic austerity regime play out before.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, as owners moved manufacturing jobs outside the city and federal policy subsidized white homeownership in the suburbs and investment in highways, the city repudiated its long history of what historian Joshua Freeman called an island of social democracy and became a touchstone for disinvestment and blight. In response to capital flight and deindustrialization, the city entered into a Faustian pact with bankers, real estate tycoons, developers, and other elite sectors who robbed the city blind at the level of city planning and land use policy. Take, for example, Robert Moses using capital investments in infrastructure to build highways for cars, which resulted in the state and capital shifting funding from cities to suburbia in the 1950s. An alliance between big business, state planners, and the real estate industry is at the heart of the highly unequal New York City of today, as the late journalist and organizer Robert Fitch argued in The Assassination of New York, resulting in elite business interests positioning themselves as arbiters of the city’s future and claiming a monopoly on its wealth. Phillips-Fein writes in Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics,“These businesspeople disliked the expansive social sector, which seemed to them unnecessary, and they feared that taxes would have to keep being raised to pay for more services for poor people. They wanted lower taxes for themselves, and to use tax incentives to attract and retain business—not to pay for day care, health care or more spaces in the city university system.”
But in other instances, workers fought back as they were blamed for the city’s financial woes and wealth was siphoned from their communities by the new robber barons. In the 1970s, as landlords defaulted or torched whole neighborhoods to collect insurance payments, some working-class tenants saw an opportunity and assumed community control of their buildings, owning them outright through sweat equity. Taking matters into their own hands, tenants went on rent strikes, sometimes putting the rent they had withheld into an escrow account or investing it into fixing their buildings themselves. In other instances, homesteaders moved into buildings that had been abandoned by landlords and rehabilitated them by making their own repairs. There were also groups like Los Sures in Williamsburg and Banana Kelly in Longwood that partnered with well-organized tenants to take direct control of abandoned properties and convert them into cooperatives. By 1979, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development was the second-biggest landlord in New York after the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, owning 40,000 occupied and 60,000 empty apartments.
With New York State projecting a budget shortfall of $13.3 billion this fiscal year, we are presented with another such opportunity for creative organizing. What if today, rather than succumb to austerity—recognizing that rent forgiveness and other short-term measures will not fundamentally challenge the city’s housing crisis—we seek similar wealth redistribution through socialized housing? This is an undoubtedly ambitious project but an urgent one to begin building toward.
In places like New York, tenants already have some of these tools at their disposal, and progressive lawmakers have introduced policies to give them more power, according to Stein. “When coupled with public acquisition funds, programs like Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Acts—which entitle renters to a right of first refusal when their building goes on sale and incentivizes limited-equity coop conversions or other forms of permanent affordability—and ‘First Look’ agreements—which offer community-based organizations the chance to buy buildings before they go to auction if they can preserve them as affordable housing—can be used to dramatically expand the stock of social housing in our cities.”
Tenants are already trying to use the means available to them to reclaim control of their buildings from negligent landlords. Edward Garcia, lead community organizer at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, told The New Republic that tenants at a rent-stabilized complex where he organizes have been on rent strike since February. In addition to demands around improving conditions through the appointment of a responsible manager, the building’s tenant association has called on the city to transfer ownership of the building to its working-class tenants, shifting its deed from private ownership to a limited-equity cooperative housing arrangement.
Beyond just a revitalized push to take over buildings, tenant organizers have also connected the demand to defund the police to reinvesting in public housing, shifting budget priorities from violent state infrastructures to those that build and sustain communities. The New York Police Department’s budget is dramatically outsized when compared to NYCHA, Michael Velarde, a Chicano labor and community organizer, told The New Republic, and “decades of investment in the police, as well as neoliberal cuts to social spending more broadly, have resulted in over $45 billion in essential repairs owed to NYCHA residents.”
Michael Higgins from the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network noted to us that NYCHA tenants have dealt with an onslaught of challenges, including the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and now Covid-19. “There is also a deep cynicism to the calls from the housing authority that it does not have enough money to properly maintain its portfolio, instead seeing deep corruption and mismanagement of funds as the source for many of the authority’s failures that have led to its oversight by a federal monitor and ongoing restructuring.”
But he finds hope in a vision of fully funded public housing “saved through deep organizing” that “treats its housing stock similarly to the abandonment of thousands of units in the 1970s as both a sweat equity program but also as part of a wider fight to liberate land from speculation through mechanisms such as community land trusts and other forms of collective ownership.”
Paloma Lara, an organizer at Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale/Alto Manhattan No Se Vende, also sees community land trusts, or CLT, as an opportunity to rebuild tenant power and “create community, establish sustainability, and provide space that is not susceptible to the market.” Through community land trusts, working-class communities are able to lock in affordability by owning the land on which housing is built. Homeowners within CLT purchase their homes at below-market prices, and owners agree to capped resale value so people in similar income brackets can purchase them, all the while providing support to owners through financial challenges or shepherding resales, including managing rental properties. These models also provide non-housing services, including urban greenhouses and gardens as well as commercial office space. “What is fundamental to a community is not just housing,” Lara said. “A neighborhood has many components.”
Just as New York City served as a laboratory for fiscal austerity and gentrification in the 1970s, today’s fiscal crisis can serve as a workshop in a people’s—or solidarity—economy, expanding its redistributive logic to other cities and, ultimately, becoming national policy.
Renters are testing these frameworks and challenging the power of landlords in expensive cities around the world. Even before the pandemic crisis, activists in Berlin were pushing to have city government buy out big landlords. Since 2016, municipalities in the Catalonia region, including Barcelona, can expropriate landlords of properties that have been left vacant for more than two years through compulsory purchase, at 50 percent of the market rate. (This kind of policy could be transformative in New York City: Currently in Long Island City, out of 1,945 condo units completed since 2018, nearly 60 percent remain unsold, according to The New York Times.)
The tenant association that Ramirez and her neighbors organized for themselves is a version of the same redistributive calculus we see in big cities across the world, like Lisbon turning Airbnb and holiday rentals in the center of the city into housing for essential workers, revealing the urgency of allowing workers to keep more of their paychecks instead of being squeezed by landlords. “I also started to notice that ... they, the building owners, sometimes own large chains,” Ramirez said of her organizing work. “They do not own a building, two buildings, sometimes they own many buildings. When they make money from the rent that we pay, that money doubles or triples.” (Whenever their profits are threatened by regulation to protect tenants, the real estate industry hides behind the need to defend mythical small “mom-and-pop” landlords. In reality, the average New York City landlord registered with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development owns 21 properties with 893 units, according to the nonprofit JustFix.nyc.)
Ramirez represents an emergent activist vanguard forged in the public health crisis and economic recession that seeks to make inroads in shifting the balance of power in the city. “Today, the loss of employment and income for hundreds of thousands of formerly employed workers with a substantial amount of social capital, time, and specialized skills has led to the rise of dozens of tenant groups that have largely coalesced around a now national movement around canceling rent and mutual aid,” said Higgins. “It is much less nonprofit driven, being led by many with no formal background in community organizing, housing specific or otherwise.”
Normally organizing large rent strikes would require years of careful organizing, but 24 percent of New Yorkers did not pay their rent in June and are already on a de facto rent strike. Something that was previously considered impossible, by necessity, quickly came together. That kind of organizing points to a horizon of possibility for more radical demands that, rather than put forward inadequate half-measures on the current crisis, builds long-term solutions for millions of renters. “This has been done before during other crises, including in the wakes of the Great Depression,” Stein said, “when the national public housing program was initiated and the mid-1970s financial crisis.”
The current crisis makes it clear that markets for housing will never serve the needs of a multi-racial working class. Rents may eventually go down after vacancy rates increase, but we will still see painful evictions and homelessness for working-class families. But tenants are challenging this logic and asserting in its place a human right to housing. The choice to them has become clear: Either landlords evict their tenants or tenants evict their landlords.