Tenants Won This Round

Last week, New York tenants overcame the state's powerful real-estate lobby to win a historic package of renter protections. Next stop: universal rent control.

A woman walks down a street on February 27, 2014 in Fort Greene, New York. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Last Friday, when New York’s expanded rent regulations were signed into law, was not the first time I’d seen tenants cry at the state capital. For a very long time, the state capital building in Albany was the place where New York’s renters suffered crushing legislative defeats. Then, for a few years, it was where we made incremental progress, too small and too slow to beat back the rush of gentrification and displacement encouraged by rental deregulation. Last week’s gathering to celebrate the historic expansion of rent stabilization, rent control, and anti-eviction measures, however, was the first time I’d ever seen tenants in the state capital crying tears of joy.

It was a powerful moment, in every sense of the word: it held tremendous emotional power, and it was also a striking expression of tenants’ power. This victory was decades in the making, and therefore its realization was thanks in large part to tenant leaders who have fought for stronger rent laws for all those years. Some of them were there on Friday, including many friends, comrades, and former co-workers of mine. Many more did not live to see this day, including countless tenant activists who died along the way — often prematurely, undoubtedly due in part to the poor housing conditions they struggled against in their lifetimes. The tears, then, were tears of joy and mourning, exhaustion and relief, and endurance and excitement for all the work that is yet to come.

What Was Won

Listing everything included in the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 could take a while. It’s a big law — seventy-four pages of dense legal text — and so tenants, landlords, and lawyers are still poring over the details to understand each of the clauses and look out for any surprises. Some of its provisions address specific ways tenant protections have been weakened over the past forty years, and roll back those landlord victories in meaningful ways. Other aspects of the bill are altogether new, and strengthen the rent laws beyond their original scope.

Rather than recount every provision, here are some of the highlights:

  • Rent regulation is now a permanent feature of New York’s housing law, rather than one that expires periodically and needs to be renewed. In the past the New York tenant movement has generally fought against moves to make the law permanent because it was so flawed, and each renewal would prompt another opportunity to mobilize for their improvement; with rent regulations now significantly expanded, this laws’ indefinite tenure is generally seen as a major achievement for tenants.
  • Rent stabilized apartments will no longer be eligible for deregulation simply because they cross a certain rental rate upon vacancy. Of equal importance, the law also removes what tenants called the “eviction bonus,” or an up to 20 percent increase every time an apartment turned over. When combined, the eviction bonus and vacancy decontrol created a strong incentive for landlords to churn through tenants and exit the regulatory scheme; this opportunity for landlords is now foreclosed.
  • The law also makes it more difficult for apartments to exit rent stabilization through three other means: “owner occupancy,” conversions, and nonprofit use. In the past, landlords have been able to claim — often fraudulently — multiple apartments within a building for their own or their family’s use, and in so doing remove them from rent stabilization; the new law limits this practice to one apartment per building. Rent stabilized rental buildings used to be eligible for conversion into condos or coops if just 15 percent of tenants bought in; now that percentage has been raised to 51 percent, and additional protections have been added for rent stabilized, senior, or disabled tenants who remain in buildings that undergo a coop or condo conversion. Building owners who offered apartments to homeless people used to be allowed to take those units out of the rent stabilization system; the new law closes this nonprofit loophole, providing additional security to formerly homeless tenants and keeping those units in the regulatory system.
  • For the past sixteen years, in places where legally permissible rents for rent stabilized apartments had outpaced market rates, landlords could opt to charge tenants a lower “preferential rent.” Upon lease renewal, however, the landlord could raise rents all the way up to the maximum legal rent, thus forcing tenants to move. Roughly a quarter of rent stabilized tenants — me included — fell into this category, which made our tenancy and rent protections highly precarious. The new rent laws make the “preferential rent” permanent as long as the tenant remains in the apartment, thus providing a great deal more stability to hundreds of thousands of renters.
  • In the past, due in large part to pro-landlord amendments to the rent laws, tenants have had to pay a permanent and painful rent increase for work done on their building or apartments — known as Major Capital Improvements (MCIs) and Individual Apartment Improvements (IAIs). Sometimes these were important upgrades, but other times they were pointless schemes to raise rents. In either case, tenants paid too much, and for too long. The new law lowers the percentage landlords can raise rents, and puts a thirty-year cap on these payments.
  • New York’s rent regulations include two types of apartments: rent stabilized (the vast majority, almost one million apartments) and rent controlled (a small minority, approximately twenty-two thousand apartments). The arcane formula for rent controlled apartments’ rent increases permitted rent hikes far higher than those for rent stabilized tenants; meanwhile, almost all rent controlled residents are seniors living on fixed incomes. The new laws ensure that these tenants no longer see rent increases higher than their rent stabilized neighbors, and are spared the onerous “fuel pass-along” that they alone had to endure.

While the previous reforms have impacted tenants in rent stabilized and rent controlled apartments — a significant group, given that they make up roughly half of New York City’s private rental market — others affect all tenants across the state.

  • The bill takes on the “tenant blacklist,” a list of names of tenants who have been to housing court either as defendants or plaintiffs, which landlords and brokers have used to discriminate against tenants with any kind of court record. It is now illegal for court systems or their contractors to sell such data, or for landlords to refuse tenancy after consulting such records.
  • Landlords can no longer charge more than one month’s rent as a security deposit, and new measures have been added to help tenants get their deposits back after leaving an apartment.
  • Unlawful eviction is now a crime, and new protections have been added to prevent landlords from “retaliatory evictions,” or evictions based on tenants’ complaints or organizing. Tenants now have additional time to find a lawyer, fix conditions that violate their lease, or raise money to pay owed rents, and courts now have more opportunities to stay evictions.

Perhaps most important of all, the new laws expand regulatory rent protections to a new group of tenants and an expanded geography.

  • Tenants living in mobile/manufactured homes — a growing area of speculation for predatory investors, who are buying up parks and lots and raising tenants’ rents and fees — have a slew of new protections, including limits on rent increases and new anti-eviction protections.

Whereas New York’s regulatory system has previously been available only to tenants in New York City and suburban Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland counties, the new law removes these geographical restrictions and allows municipalities statewide to declare “housing emergencies” and opt in to rent stabilization. In those areas, apartments constructed before 1974 and containing more than five units will go under rent stabilization. This will be crucial in addressing the affordability and eviction crisis that plagues upstate cities, towns, and villages.

What’s Left Out, and What’s to Come

While the 2019 rent laws are thus historic, they are not everything the tenant movement demanded. Specifically, one major aspect of “universal rent control” is missing, and another was negotiated down.

Absent from the bill is the “good-cause eviction” provision (language I can’t help but put into quotation marks because poverty should not be considered good cause for eviction). This bill would have provided significant protections to non–rent stabilized (or “market-rate”) tenants, including a right to guaranteed lease renewal and a cap on rent increases. Such a reform would have not only protected millions of tenants statewide, but would have helped unite different categories of tenants. It also would have empowered more non-stabilized tenants to join organizing campaigns without fear of being denied a renewal when their current lease expires. This was probably the most controversial tenant movement demand, and it was ultimately excluded from the final legislation.

Renters were also demanding that MCIs and IAIs be abolished altogether. Instead, the law lowers the allowable rent increase and stretches it out over thirty years. This was a major win, but not everything the movement demanded.

One common chant at rallies leading up to this June was “All Nine Bills!” This slogan referenced the nine legislative demands made by the Housing Justice for All campaign, a coalition of over seventy organizations from across the state demanding “universal rent control.” The bill that passed last week contains something like seven and a half out the nine bills, or 83 percent of the coalition’s demands. It’s not universal rent control since it doesn’t provide lease renewals and rent caps to all tenants, but it’s an enormous step in that direction.

Now that the rent laws are permanent, tenant organizations are already making plans for the next legislative session, in which the demand for “good cause eviction” protections will be a top priority.

The movement is also gearing up for a major fight around enforcement. The agency tasked with enforcing New York’s rent laws — Homes and Community Renewal — is perpetually understaffed, under-budgeted, and technologically deprived. Now that agency is going to be busier than ever, which means they’ll need a whole lot more resources, as well as greater enforcement power and oversight.

Finally, the tenant movement is preparing for ideological battle against landlord logic, pervasive not only among building owners but also much of the media covering housing and the neoclassical economists they often turn to for analysis. Landlords and those carrying their water claim that rent control in general — and this bill in particular — deprives supposedly struggling landlords of the funding necessary to invest in their buildings. This could generously be termed horseshit.

Owners of rent stabilized buildings are not at all in the situation faced by the New York City Housing Authority, which has been systematically defunded by the federal government over the past thirty years. New York City rents — even stabilized rents — are more than high enough to cover maintenance and taxes; the bill retains landlords’ ability to completely recoup the cost of building investments, and make a 5 to 6 percent return on top of ordinary rents and their annual increases. If this demotivates landlords from investing in their buildings, it is only because they are engaged as a class in a slow-motion capital strike, in which they let their buildings deteriorate in order to extort higher rent increases out of the Rent Guidelines Board and/or more permissive laws from the legislature.

Similarly, developers are complaining that the law removes their ability to decontrol some very expensive apartments while also receiving an obscene tax break; this is a nonsense argument premised on the idea that private developers should be twice rewarded for building luxury properties — first with a tax break, then with endlessly escalating rents.

This ideological and rhetorical back and forth about the merits of rent control has already begun, and much more is on the horizon — as well as a probable landlord lawsuit, electoral challenges, and counter-legislation. There is therefore much to prepare for, and much more of a fight to come.

How Tenants Won

For years, activists and scholars will be reflecting, studying, debating, and — in all likelihood — fighting about what was and was not achieved in June 2019, and how it all happened. From this early vantage, three elements seem crucial to understanding how this victory was achieved: 1) decades of tireless tenant organizing from long-established groups; 2) extra pressure and organizing power from insurgent groups; and 3) a new set of legislators in power with allegiance to tenants and their movements.

Day in and day out, New Yorkers have been organizing at every scale — the household, the building, the block, the neighborhood, the borough, the city, the metropolitan area, the state, the region, the nation, and the globe — for their housing. This organizing has taken place through informal community networks as well through individual tenant associations, but it has also been taken on by citywide groups like Tenants & Neighbors (where I once worked as an organizer then served as a board member) and the Metropolitan Council on Housing, as well as tenant organization in the suburbs and upstate.

Those groups, along with many others — including smaller but no less longstanding or effective neighborhood-based organizations — have been organizing in buildings and pushing legislators for a very long time, and helped build up the movement infrastructure necessary to achieve wage this legislative fight. For this round of struggle, the established tenant organizations took a more intentionally geographical approach to organizing, and formed the Upstate-Downstate Tenant Alliance, which worked to ensure that various regions — not just New York City — saw their housing needs addressed by the legislation. This was crucial in assuring that rent regulation and anti-eviction measures were not framed as “downstate problems.”

On top of this long-term organizing by established political actors, radicals grouped into multiple different formations, acting independently, and working as members of long-standing tenants’ organizations contributed toward this victory. The biggest and most visible component of this bloc was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose New York branches and members contributed countless hours to canvassing efforts, but they were certainly not alone. Members and branches of a constellation of radical organizations, including anti-gentrification groups and tenant unions organizing outside the nonprofit infrastructure, contributed in various ways, building up the militancy of the movement and the radicality of its demands.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, this legislative victory could not be achieved without a change in the legislature. In the last statewide election cycle, New Yorkers — including the DSA, tenant organizations incorporated as 501-c4s (and thus eligible to do electoral work), and the No IDC NY coalition (formed to take down the so-called “Independent Democratic Caucus”) — organized to primary a slew of Democrats who were holding up rent law reforms and other items on the left legislative agenda. Their victories resulted in not just a functional Democratic majority in the state senate, but a group of reformers in office with strong allegiances to tenants and the tenant movement. Many of them had forsworn contributions from the real estate industry, and were thus harder for the landlord lobby to capture in an effort to block or water down the bill.

While some might give greater weight to one of these factors over the others, it seems unlikely that this victory would have been achieved without all three. As Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and veteran tenant activist, summed it up, “To me the big thing is the convergence of long haul organizing and fast political opportunity seizing.”

Why Rent Control Matters

Though the expansion of the rent laws fell short of universal rent control, this legislation is nonetheless a major victory over the real estate industry and a blow to the real estate state. Landlords and developers have fought for years to weaken tenant protections, and now their fortunes are turning. Of course real estate remains the dominant strain of capital in state politics, but strengthening the rent laws shows that they are vulnerable, and that they can in fact be defeated. That alone should jump start our political imaginations to consider what else tenants can achieve, and what it would take to win more. In the meantime, it is worth reflecting on why rent control matters to our movement.

Rent control (or, in New York’s case, rent stabilization) is often thought of as a tool for securing housing affordability. It most certainly is that — in New York City, median regulated rents are about 25 percent lower than unregulated rents, and median incomes for rent stabilized tenants are a third lower than market-rate tenants. By closing several loopholes in the existing law, the new legislation will help keep those apartments relatively affordable and slow the rate of rent increases.

It will also make it harder for speculators to make a killing off of the rent gaps exhibited by rent stabilized apartments. It has become increasingly common for predatory equity firms to buy up rent stabilized buildings and complexes at severely inflated prices, under the assumption that they could exploit the old rent laws’ weaknesses to raise rents, churn through tenants, and deregulate the apartments. That business model took a major hit last Friday, when many of the key mechanisms for rent increases were diminished or disappeared, and decontrol was eliminated altogether. The law does not, however, roll back rents — something the various Rent Guidelines Boards are empowered to do, but never have — and so many tenants are still paying way too much for their homes.

Even with overinflated rents, rent control is also a way of creating stability in tenants’ lives. It ensures that people can keep living where they want to, rather than living at the whim of a landlord who may or may not offer them a chance to stay another year (or even another month). This bill expands the stability rent stabilization offers beyond its current geographical boundaries, and out into the rest of the state. This will be particularly important to tenants in cities like Albany, Newburgh, and Rochester, where tenants are obscenely rent burdened and forced to move (either by eviction, rent increases, or simple failure to offer a lease) at a terrible clip.

By deepening and expanding rent protections, the new laws deepen and expand the possibilities for tenant organizing. This could be the longest lasting impact of the new rent laws. Rent regulated tenants are in a much stronger organizing position than those in market rate arrangements. When lease renewals are guaranteed and rent increases are limited to specific amounts under specific conditions, landlords cannot easily retaliate against tenants who join with their neighbors to demand better conditions or take political action to weaken real estate power.

Being a rent regulated tenant also puts you in political community with millions of others in a similar housing arrangement, and allows for people to join together and raise their collective voices. By making these protections more meaningful and — crucially — by expanding access to these protections to tenants across the state, this legal change creates a historical opportunity for state-wide housing organizing, which can bring together tenants in hyper-invested cities and deeply disinvested cities, both of which face tremendous housing pressures for working class renters. This in turn can add momentum to rent control campaigns around the country.

Rent control has one other additional function of crucial importance to the Left, though it’s not as often discussed as rent control’s effects on housing affordability, stability, and organizing capacity: rent control helps de-couple public investment from rent increases, and thus shifts the political terrain for urban planning. In a largely deregulated rental market, public actions to improve urban space (such as transit expansions, park improvements, better schools, or new housing construction) are quickly translated by nearby land and building owners into inflated housing costs.

Landlords thus reap the economic benefits of social investments, while tenants pay a higher premium to enjoy them or are displaced from their neighborhoods altogether. Under universal rent control, landlords could not raise rents simply because public actions made the space more enjoyable or desirable. The link between the social benefits of public investment and the private interests of real estate capital would be severed, enabling working class residents not only to advocate for better planning and services, but to do so with the security that they could remain in their homes to enjoy those social goods.

Rent control is not the decommodification of housing, though it does make predatory investments less lucrative; it is not community control or public ownership, though it does exert public pressure over private landlords’ rent-gauging tendencies. While it may not be a socialist housing program in and of itself, it is certainly a crucial element of an anticapitalist urban agenda, as it cools the speculative housing market, and provides the stability tenants need to organize and take collective action.

We’re not there yet; in fact, we’re still pretty far from universal rent control, even in New York. We need to keep fighting for the elements of the legislative agenda not included in the final bill, including most immediately “good cause eviction” protections, and we need to fight to expand the types of buildings covered under the law. On top of universal rent control, we need to fight further for a socialist program that includes fully funded public housing, community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, and other forms of decommodified housing.

The struggle continues. Last Friday may have been the first time I witnessed tenants crying tears of joy at the state capital, but if the movement can maintain its momentum it surely won’t be the last.