No Rent for Rats

From Tompkins Square to Zuccotti Park, New Yorkers have long resisted their city’s neoliberal housing initiatives.

On the night of June 29, 2015, hundreds of tenants and activists gathered at Cooper Union’s Great Hall near Astor Place in Manhattan. They were assembled to witness a vote by the Rent Guidelines Board, which regulates the rents of New York’s more than one million rent-stabilized leases.

Since it was founded in 1969, the board had voted to increase rents every year. But this year was different. Skyrocketing rents, sympathetic press coverage, a well-organized campaign involving dozens of groups throughout the city, and a new and supportive mayor meant that the voice of tenants was louder than it had been in years.

The board voted not to permit rent raises on one-year leases. Tenants rejoiced. Landlords were outraged and called the move “unconscionable.” In fact, the activists won only some of their demands. New York’s landlords were as powerful as ever. But the 2015 rent freeze showed that in a city ruled by real estate, tenant power was alive and kicking.

Who decides what housing is to be provided, at what price, for whom and where? The two most powerful actors, the real-estate industry and the state, have never had absolute control over the housing system. They have always had to contend, one way or another, with the power of housing’s inhabitants, particularly when they take the form of organized housing movements.

Housing movements are popular struggles by those for whom housing means home, not real estate. They mobilize on behalf, in the phrasing of Henri Lefebvre, of “all those who inhabit.”

All forms of housing activism share a common purpose: the defense of home and the personal lifeworld against economic and political pressures. Housing movements fight for use values against exchange values; for residential interests against the interests of landlords, banks, developers, and investors; for housing as home against the other economic and political ends for which housing has been appropriated.

Throughout its history, housing movements helped shape New York City. From the founding of the Tenant League by Irish-American militants in the 1840s to the organizing of the city’s first rent strikes by Yiddish-speaking radicals in the 1900s, and from the widespread housing insurrections that stretched from the late 1910s until the 1930s to the civil rights and Black Power-inspired activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, social movements worked to secure many of the distinctive elements of the city’s housing system. Without the demands of activists, the city might not have enacted rent control or established the nation’s largest and most successful public housing authority.

But beginning in the mid 1970s, tenant power faced new obstacles. In the decades following the fiscal crisis, New York underwent a regime change. The city’s social democratic polity, limited and contradictory as it was, yielded to a neoliberal growth model.

At first, under the mayoral administrations of Abe Beame and Ed Koch, this process took the form of cutbacks and privatization. Later, under Rudolph Giuliani, more aggressive social policies were rolled out. The whole process was propelled by, and in turn contributed to, an epochal change in the city’s economy.

New York had been experiencing industrial job loss for two decades since manufacturing’s peak in 1950. But by the 1970s, deindustrialization was wreaking havoc on the city’s working-class neighborhoods. At the same time, the finance, insurance, and real-estate sectors expanded.

The neoliberal transformation of the city initially spurred two trends in housing: gentrification and abandonment. These processes seemed to be polar opposites, but critical observers recognized them as two sides of the same coin. Both were consequences of the commodification of housing in the context of rapid urban economic change. Both were exacerbated by government policy. And both became targets for housing activists.

Abandonment and Activism

Abandonment brought waves of destruction to New York neighborhoods. When landlords decided that maintaining their buildings was no longer profitable, many simply walked away from them. Some, seeking insurance payouts, also set their buildings on fire — with or without tenants inside.

As poor New Yorkers faced increased joblessness and impoverishment, the rate of abandonment exploded. There were approximately one thousand abandoned buildings in 1961, a figure that increased to about seven thousand in 1968. For most of the 1970s, the city lost nearly forty thousand units per year.

Into the 1980s, the combination of abandonment, arson, service cuts, and eventually the AIDS epidemic led to deadly and mutually reinforcing housing and health disasters.

The activists’ response to this catastrophe was to take matters into their own hands. Groups like Los Sures in Williamsburg and Banana Kelly in Longwood helped tenants take direct control of abandoned properties and turn them into cooperatives.

Some of these efforts began with successful rent strikes. Landlords simply quit, leaving well-organized tenants with months’ worth of withheld rent that they invested in fixing their buildings themselves. In other cases, homesteaders moved into emptied shells with the explicit intent to rehabilitate them through sweat equity.

Many buildings that were abandoned by landlords became government property. Through the legal procedure of in rem acquisition, the city could take ownership of properties in tax arrears.

By 1979 the city owned forty thousand occupied and sixty thousand empty apartments. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development became, after the New York City Housing Authority, the second-biggest landlord in New York.

The city’s huge stock of in rem properties allowed it to expand the supply of low-income housing. But with a government unwilling and unprepared to take advantage of the crisis to transform its housing system in a deeper way, in rem “became,” as Frank Marconi has written, “an expensive symbol of all that New York’s progressive housing tradition had sought to avoid.”

In some areas, the city proved to be just as careless as the worst rent gouger. In other parts of town, the city used its in rem properties, as well as tax subsidies like J-51 and 421-a, as the building blocks for state-led gentrification.

“Gentrification Is Class War!”

At the same time as abandonment was destroying some neighborhoods, gentrification was displacing poor residents from others. Anti-gentrification activism tended to be locally based and fractured. But from the beginnings of large-scale gentrification in the city in the 1970s and 1980s, groups objected loudly to displacement, commodification, and profiteering, and proposed alternatives.

On the Lower East Side, speculators were pursuing the well-worn strategy of buying occupied tenements, forcing out rent-regulated tenants, and raising the rent. The city wanted to use its substantial stock of buildings acquired through in rem to hasten the area’s redevelopment.

In response, housing groups like the Cooper Square Community Development Committee and Good Ole Lower East Side (GOLES) joined churches, settlement houses, social service providers, and others to form the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council (JPC).

Having seen how the redevelopment process had turned once-industrial SoHo into an exclusive enclave, the JPC put forward a series of plans to stem speculation in the neighborhood, including public housing but focusing on affordable cooperatives.

Nonetheless, the city pushed forward with the plan to privatize its holdings in the area. Despite some token concessions to the JPC, evictions, rent increases, and conversions became everyday occurrences on the Lower East Side.

This pattern was repeated throughout the city. Plans were often proposed at the community level and then disregarded by the city. Anti-gentrification activists were not the irrational refuseniks that their critics made them out to be. They offered their own visions of what their neighborhoods should become. But especially as New York’s housing market came roaring back to profitability in the 1980s and 1990s, these alternatives were consistently ignored as real-estate interests overpowered neighborhood organizations.

Some of the fiercest opposition on the Lower East Side came from squatters. Growing from the tactical squatting in the 1970s, represented by actions such as Operation Move-In, by the 1980s squatting had become a stronger movement. Raids, evictions, power and water stoppages, and battles with the police were common. Groups like the Urban Homestead Assistance Board (UHAB) aided squatters and homesteaders and, when it became necessary, helped them negotiate with the city about the legal status of their homes.

But squatting proved to have serious limitations as a housing strategy. The struggles of squats presented very different problems than those of other oppositional activities. Some squatters voiced concerns that they might be “the real storm troopers of gentrification.” Others were essentially individuals acting alone, merely looking to secure housing for themselves with no connection to wider campaigns. And the squatters encountered violent opposition from the city and polarized public opinion regarding their ambiguous approach to property rights.

Squatters, social workers, community organizations, and assorted neighborhood characters all appeared in one of the most notorious moments of the late twentieth-century housing movement: the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988.

The park had become a flashpoint in battles over housing and neighborhood change in downtown Manhattan. In the surrounding streets of the Lower East Side, rising rents and rampant speculation had placed the neighborhood on edge. Anger was particularly focused on one sixteen-story building that abutted Tompkins Square, the Christadora House.

Built by a charity in 1929, the building had housed a community center, a welfare office, and a chapter of the Black Panther Party before being boarded up and auctioned to a private bidder in 1978. Making use of a variety of tax breaks and subsidies, Citibank backed its conversion into luxury condominiums in 1984. The appearance of conspicuous wealth in a sea of poverty made the building an icon of the new housing inequality. One resident writer said that local activists regarded the building as “Satan incarnate.”

By the summer of 1988, the New York City Police Department had already sought to enforce a 1:00 AM curfew in the park in response to earlier incidents. On the night of August 6, hundreds of people — squatters, tenants, the homeless, punks, artists, and assorted others — assembled in the square. Armed with firecrackers and boom boxes, chanting “Die Yuppie Scum” while carrying banners declaring “Gentrification Is Class War!” they clashed with more than four hundred riot police.

Thirty-eight people were injured. The New York Times declared, “Class Struggle Erupts Along Avenue B.” Eventually more than one hundred police brutality complaints were filed.

After the Tompkins Square uprising, it was becoming clear that working-class and poor tenants faced growing pressures.

A Common Enemy

In the 1990s, real-estate speculation and cutbacks in government programs led once more to worsening housing crisis. Rents soared, and evictions followed, as building owners tried to get rid of rent-regulated tenants. The numbers of subsidized and rent-stabilized apartments shrank.

These trends would continue to the present day. For the non-rich, housing in New York became ever more precarious.

Through the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, the housing landscape became increasingly unaffordable and unequal. Luxury development spread out from its traditional wealthy heartlands to colonize the outer corners of the city. Landlords in “transitional” neighborhoods hired lawyers and thugs to help them kick tenants out of rent-regulated units. Low-income families, especially among the rising numbers of immigrants, spent ever more time working to pay inflated rents, moved farther out from the center, and crammed into ever-smaller spaces.

Rudy Giuliani, the mayor from 1994 through 2001, demonized housing activists. Giuliani ordered the eviction of squats, and he famously launched a vindictive war against the homelessness and AIDS nonprofit group Housing Works as well as other housing organizations.

His successor, Michael Bloomberg, was less visibly antagonistic. The administration liked to boast that its New Housing Marketplace program had developed or preserved more than 160,000 units of affordable housing. But that program largely assisted middle-class families with incomes well over the poverty line.

For Bloomberg, the city was “a luxury product,” and he dreamed of luring “a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here.” Housing activists and the communities that they represented felt that they had no place in Bloomberg’s luxury city.

One of the housing groups that emerged in Bloomberg’s New York is the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). The group was founded by migrants and other low-income residents of East Harlem, taking inspiration both from the direct-action tactics of groups like Take Back the Land and from revolutionary movements like the Zapatistas. MJB organizes against displacement and what they explicitly call “neoliberal gentrification” in this working-class, cosmopolitan neighborhood.

Their “International Declaration in Defense of El Barrio,” published in English and Spanish in March 2008, declares:

The struggle for justice means fighting for the liberation of women, immigrants, lesbians, people of color, gays and the transgender community. We all share a common enemy and it’s called neoliberalism.

For these activists, the fight over place and displacement in East Harlem links local housing issues to antiracism, indigenous rights, and a struggle to transform global capitalism:

This displacement is created by the greed, ambition and violence of a global empire of money that seeks to take total control of all the land, labor and life on earth. Here in El Barrio (East Harlem, New York City), landlords, multinational corporations and local, state, and federal politicians and institutions want to force upon us their culture of money, they want to displace poor families and rent their apartments to rich people, white people with money . . . They want to displace us to bring in their luxury restaurants, their expensive and large clothing stores, their supermarket chains. They want to change our neighborhood. They want to change our culture. They want to change that which makes us Latino, African-American, Asian, and Indigenous. They want to change everything that makes us El Barrio.

MJB’s declaration was issued in response to the $225 million purchase of forty-seven buildings in East Harlem by Dawnay Day, a London-based property and financial services company.

Dawnay Day executives were famous for their penchant for yachts, art collecting — and tenant harassment. According to activists, the company shut off power and heat, charged for basic repairs, and allowed rats and vermin to spread, all in an effort to chase out longtime rent-regulated residents and replace them with a more lucrative class of tenant. Its director had publicly vowed “to bring along Harlem’s gentrification.”

Groups like MJB, Community Voices Heard (CVH) and others became a crucial lifeline for residents after Dawnay Day went bust, leaving their buildings in legal and administrative limbo.

Throughout the Bloomberg era, in a manner reminiscent of the movement against urban renewal, neighborhoods across the city organized against displacement, megaprojects, and luxury housing.

Opposition to the inequality of the Bloomberg years was one of the inspirations for Occupy Wall Street, which began their encampment in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011.

The movement’s largest housing protest took place a few months later, when a faction called Occupy Our Homes led a march and began a small occupation of foreclosed homes in Brooklyn.

Activists associated with the Occupy movement led a grassroots response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, distributing aid to low-income households throughout the areas damaged by the storm.

But since then, the housing branch of the Occupy movement has, like many residential movements that preceded it, seemingly gone into remission.

New Groups, Same Fight

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office on January 1, 2014, has closer ties to housing activists than any mayor since La Guardia. His policies and appointments have clearly made a difference in some cases.

A handful of projects have been forced to include more affordable units than originally planned and required to keep them “affordable” for longer. And his administration has prohibited what housing activists christened “poor doors” — separate entrances to the “affordable” spaces in the otherwise luxury apartment buildings that are built with valuable height bonuses offered by the city in exchange for including the below-market units.

But compared to the resources and space consumed by luxury housing, these changes seem insignificant. Many housing activists see the de Blasio administration’s strategy as “too little, too late.” Others see his policies as essentially a continuation of those of Bloomberg. And even if the mayor himself asserted a harder line, the city’s housing policy is a complex contraption that resists change.

The Rent Guidelines Board’s rent freeze vote is a case in point. The mayor’s appointees listened to tenant activists and voted not to increase rents on one-year leases. But the freeze did not extend to two-year leases as tenants had demanded, and little action was taken to help tenants on other important issues tied to the debate.

Compared to the Giuliani or Bloomberg years, the climate in New York today is more amenable to housing activism. Yet the vast political and economic structures of the city are still organized in favor of elite interests.

The protections that earlier housing movements won in order to insulate households from the violence of the market are being steadily stripped away. Rent regulation is being undermined. Public housing is in a critically undermaintained condition. Activists are working hard just to keep public housing and rent control around — their expansion seems a distant prospect.

In some ways, housing activism in New York today has much continuity with the past. Veteran organizations like the Metropolitan Council, Tenants & Neighbors, the Pratt Area Community Council, and UHAB continue to have a major presence in the city. Neighborhood-based grassroots organizations are still active in campaigns against displacement and for affordability, access, and safety, including groups like MJB, GOLES, CVH, the Committee against Anti-Asian Violence, and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality.

The city is still home to well-organized tenant unions in Crown Heights, Chinatown, Flatbush, and elsewhere, as well as in NYCHA developments in all five boroughs. Following in the footsteps of groups like the City-Wide Tenants League, a coalition of tenant organizations founded in 1936, housing groups today operate in alliances including the Alliance for Tenant Power, the Right to the City Alliance, and Real Affordability for All.

Housing activists continue to rely on many battle-tested tools. A 2014 protest of two buildings on West 107th Street in Manhattan saw tenants chanting “No rent for rats!” — a phrase used by Jesse Gray in his tenant organizing in Harlem in the 1960s. In 2010, the Right to the City conducted a count of empty luxury condominiums and proposed appropriating them as housing for low-income families — a tactic floated by socialist-inspired activists during the 1920 housing battles.

Rent strikes have been organized in Fort Greene, Sunset Park, and elsewhere in the rapidly gentrifying tenements and row houses of the outer boroughs. Activists have marched to end landlord subsidies, block evictions, and stop luxury redevelopment plans. They have also taken to the streets to demand stronger rent control, more effective code enforcement, greater public safety, more support for public housing, and support for tenants’ rights. These are all long-standing housing movement objectives.

But today’s movements occur in a neoliberal context where political possibilities have been constricted. There are few opportunities to debate fundamental issues about the nature of the housing system. Urban politics stays within a narrow consensus. There is little room for movements to assert alternatives within the confines of the contemporary debate.

The housing movements of New York today are struggling against a city that is more unequal and more competitive than at any time since the last Gilded Age. In neoliberal New York, the needs of those who use housing for living are frequently pushed aside. But the city’s tenants have been under attack before. It has never been long before they fought back.