- Interview by
- Heather Rust
On Wednesday, November 9, the rent guidelines board in Kingston, New York, voted to enact a 15 percent rent reduction, which will apply to over twelve hundred apartments across sixty-four rent-stabilized buildings. Tenant organizers say that it’s the first rent reduction in New York State history and that it followed months of organizing by tenants and progressive grassroots groups.
One of the groups fighting for the rent reduction in Kingston was For the Many, which has been organizing tenants and other residents in the Hudson Valley around progressive causes since 2012. Jacobin’s Heather Rust interviewed For the Many political director Brahvan Ranga about the group’s efforts to bring down rents, its prior victories around housing issues, and how recent wins fit into a bigger strategy for building working-class political organization.
What just happened with the rent reduction in Kingston?
In 2019, after efforts from tenant advocates across the state, New York passed historic housing justice legislation, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA), which allowed municipalities outside of New York City to opt into rent stabilization. Several municipalities in the New York City suburbs did that. But Kingston recently opted into rent stabilization. This was historic, because Kingston was the first city north of Rockland County, the first city outside of the New York City suburbs, to opt in to rent stabilization in state history.
Rent stabilization applies to buildings that are covered by the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA), which was a law passed in 1974 that the HSTPA then expanded in 2019. That law covers buildings of six or more units that were built before 1974, which covers a bit more than twelve hundred units in Kingston — about a fifth of the rental housing stock. So, a significant fraction of Kingston tenants is covered by this rent stabilization.
The city conducted a vacancy study to determine if there’s a housing emergency, and that’s defined as having a vacancy rate of less than 5 percent. The study found a vacancy rate of just 1.57 percent, which reflected just how scarce housing was and how few options tenants had had reduced their market power to be able to do anything. They were forced to accept the poor conditions and rent gouging that landlords were imposing on them.
Once the study was done, the city declared a housing emergency. The city then had rent stabilization, which meant rents were frozen in those units, and a rent guidelines board was established to determine rent adjustments for those units.
We were pushing for this housing emergency to be declared; landlords were fighting back hard against it. They were trying to protect their profits and didn’t want the city to respond to the scale of the housing crisis that existed. But we were able to overcome that. The Kingston Common Council and the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal appointed a rent guidelines board that was open to the real needs of tenants. A lot of rent guidelines boards are in the pocket of real estate; they have very close ties to business interests. But we had a rent guidelines board in Kingston that was open to enacting adjustments that would be reasonable responses to the scope of the housing crisis.
After multiple rounds of public hearings, after hearing from experts and dozens of tenants — over seventy people showed up for those public hearings — the rent guidelines board decided that for one- and two-year leases that start in the calendar year from October 1, 2022 to September 30, 2023, the rents would have to be 15 percent lower than their current standard.
Typically, rent guidelines boards will issue an increase, sometimes a big increase, and a rent freeze. So, saying that they couldn’t increase the rent that year is considered a huge win for tenant advocates. This rent reduction, while fully in the power of the board, has never happened before. We’re the first to do it in New York State history.
The board also created a fair-market rent appeal guideline, which gives tenants a onetime challenge to their current base rent. They’re allowed to challenge their rent if it went up by more than 16 percent over the course of three years since January 2019.
Landlords have this immense amount of power, and you said they were fighting hard against this rent reduction and the rent guidelines board. How exactly did you overcome that, and who was involved? How did you get ordinary people out there?
This victory was won after years and years of housing-related organizing. We’ve been doing housing organizing in Kingston since our founding around ten years ago. We also engage in electoral work. We have been doing policy campaigns centered on community organizing and various different housing issues.
Earlier this year, we passed good cause eviction in the City of Kingston, making it just the fifth city in New York State to pass good cause. That happened after months of community meetings: we were talking to people about the problems in their lives, connecting that to systems of power that were oppressing them, turning them out to city council meetings, turning them out to call their councilmembers to pass good cause eviction.
By doing that, we were able to expand our base of activated working-class people and their allies who were committed to fighting for housing justice in Kingston. Fast-forward a couple of months: we saw landlords pushing back against the city declaring a housing emergency, and we were able to mobilize that base that we had developed over years of doing this issue-based organizing, politically activating all of these people. They turned out to city council meetings to push the Common Council to declare that housing emergency.
Fast-forward a few more months. In September, we hosted a workshop for tenants in those ETPA-eligible buildings, because they were facing predatory and illegal practices from landlords. When the housing emergency was declared, rent in those buildings was frozen. But landlords were trying to get tenants to sign illegal leases that had rent increases and trying to intimidate them into concessions.
Tenants were wondering, “What the hell are we supposed to do?” So, we hosted an information session with some of our allies. Dozens of tenants were there, clamoring and trying to figure out what on Earth was going on. We began doing tenant organizing in the biggest ETPA-eligible complexes, hosting tenant meetings and forming organizing committees. Our vision is ultimately a citywide tenants’ union, essentially.
Through meeting with these tenants who are saying, “My apartment’s in terrible condition, my rent keeps going up,” we were able to connect their immediate needs to our campaign to reduce rents in Kingston. Through that trust we were able to develop by talking about their real needs and organizing them directly into tenants’ unions, we turned them out to these public hearings. Over the course of two public hearings, seventy tenants and their allies turned out in support of a rent reduction, and just seven landlords turned out against it.
One of the talking points we were hearing from landlords is they needed objective data. So, we compiled objective data from the American Community Survey, from the county planning board, and from Zillow and other consumer-facing websites, and submitted that to the board. We talked to professors in the area who recognized the scope of the housing crisis and got them to endorse a rent reduction.
Through all that organizing — and the inside game of talking to rent guidelines board members and making it clear that this is what the community needed — we were able to amass enough pressure and power to make it clear that the only reasonable response to the testimony they heard from tenants and the data was rent reduction. That was too much for landlords to try and overcome.
Was there an event or moment that you saw as a turning point in this campaign? A lot of people know, implicitly or explicitly, that they’re getting screwed over by their landlord, but most people aren’t actually driven to take action about it. Was there some point where people went from, “Yeah, I’m being screwed over by my landlord” to “Okay, now we are going to actually do something about it”?
There’s two answers to that. This has been a long-term project of creating a base of politically activated people. We have monthly community meetings in all our core cities where the goal is to bring out working people and connect their specific problems to larger systems of oppression and get them to then take that new political activation and channel it into fighting for legislative campaigns or electoral change. That’s how we’ve created our original base in Kingston, who helped win rent stabilization in the first place.
Once that happened, there were two key events. One is when we had that first workshop for tenants in the ETPA-eligible buildings. We were getting so many requests from partner organizations, from legal services, from other folks to host this workshop, as a community organization that’s visible in Kingston, for tenants that are in these buildings. Because they had heard about rent stabilization happening, but they weren’t too sure of their rights, and landlords were taking advantage of that uncertainty to try and get them to sign leases illegally. That was the first moment we realized, “Oh, my God, this event is huge. There are so many people here that are activated around this.”
Later, during the two public hearings, where we were able to mobilize all these people, they saw how, when it comes to this rent reduction, it was a very immediate change, because they would see their rents go down the following year. It’s such a visceral kind of class conflict, where these tenants are facing rent gouging that’s forcing them from their homes. We have an opportunity to either side with these greedy landlords that are doing this rent gouging or reduce rents to preserve affordability for these tenants.
That visceral conflict made it easy for us to bring these tenants out and make it clear to them that showing up and talking about their rents going up year after year would have an immediate impact on their lives. I remember, at that second public hearing, we had recent students talking about how they’re trying to stay in the community and it’s their first step out of college but they can’t afford their apartment. We’ve heard seniors sharing heartbreaking stories about how their rents are going up year after year and their Social Security checks just don’t go up year after year, and they’re being forced from their homes after working their entire lives.
One of the landlords who testified said that these stories made him want to puke.
That guy is [Richard] Lanzarone, who’s the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to try to overturn not only the rent reduction but rent stabilization in the first place. That guy is absolutely unhinged. He’s the executive director of the Hudson Valley Property Owners Association. His website calls rent control “a cancer that kills cities.”
During the first hearing, he testified that New York was in flames because of rent stabilization — and if Kingston opts in as well, it’ll be in flames too. Which kind of sounds like a threat because the buildings being lit on fire in New York — it was the landlords who were doing that. And yeah, during the second hearing, he said he wanted to puke.
How do you understand this campaign as contributing to sustained working-class activity and organization or a sustained feeling of this visceral conflict? How are you going to keep this base of politically activated people mobilized?
We’re forming tenants’ unions with all these people that have shown up at these public hearings demanding lower rents. While rent reduction is great and the legislation that rent stabilization is based off of has protections for conditions, a lot of landlords aren’t following basic codes and law. Forming these tenant unions to organize around those issues is crucial as well.
We’re also connecting this to our statewide housing fights. We’re calling on the legislature to not only strengthen the HSTPA that was passed in 2019 but also pass good cause eviction. Because landlords have issued lawsuits against municipal governments, whether they be about rent stabilization or local good cause eviction, to attempt to bully municipalities into taking these rights away from tenants, we need to connect these local fights to our push for statewide reform. We’ve been helping lead the fight for statewide good cause eviction, which would give upstate tenants — many of whom don’t have any protections at all — some basic protections that allow them to organize and at least have some semblance of power in their dealings with landlords.
How do you see that connection working organizationally?
We have biweekly tenant union meetings where we’re talking to the folks that were at these public hearings. We’re engaging in political education and talking about how we’ve connected their personal struggles to our reducing city rents campaign, and now we’re going to connect it to our larger campaign for statewide housing justice, whether it be good cause eviction, strengthening the HSTPA, or other legislation that we’re pushing for.
We’re also organizing people to come out to our community meetings where we do monthly political education around our core issues. Right now, we’re focused on our local campaigns because the state legislature is not in session. But once the legislature meets in January, we’re going to shift what we’re talking about to talk about our statewide bills, and it’s gonna include housing bills.
The second component is, if someone is dealing with an abusive landlord or predatory rent increase, chances are they’re also dealing with a lack of access to affordable health care or they’re dealing with an energy bill that’s skyrocketing or they’re dealing with an immigration system that is massively unjust. We believe all these different issues are deeply interconnected and fundamentally go back to everyday people not having power and a few greedy, powerful people coordinating and oppressing the rest of us.
So, we can connect housing to health care and our push for universal health care in the state of New York, or energy and our push for clean, renewable public energy in the state. Our plan is to both connect these local housing issues to statewide housing fights but then also all of our multi-issue campaign fights.
Do you see this win as having changed people’s consciousness — the way they think about these problems or how they engage with these politics, locally or at the statewide or even national level?
Yeah, absolutely. Key to organizing is the idea that people aren’t alone in their struggles. If you are a single tenant, feeling like you’re alone in dealing with a predatory landlord or rent increases you can’t afford, then you have no power. But once people realize that not only are other people dealing with the same thing, but if you organize and come together, you’re able to win change and build power collectively, it’s a very powerful step in developing people’s political consciousness.
Also, the fact that we are able to win this rent reduction ties into de-commodifying these basic necessities, whether that be housing or health care or public power. Folks realize housing isn’t just a commodity that landlords own, and I’m forced to pay whatever price they want me to pay for housing, something that I have a right to. If the rent’s too high, we’re able to come together and organize and reduce the rents.
Do you see leaders emerging from this process of people engaging in struggle and being in this, as you called it, visceral conflict? Do you see the people who have gotten involved in this taking on independent action and keeping up this organizing?
We as an organization have helped bring people together and create some of the infrastructure for this organizing to happen. But this rent reduction was won by dozens of Kingston tenants that turned out and spoke to their councilmembers and demanded change. These folks are getting more and more politically activated.
Especially when it comes to tenant organizing, these folks are coming to us. They’re saying, “We’re trying to form a tenants union, we’re trying to come together, that’s our landlord. Can you help us?” Some of these leaders are going to do this with or without us providing support and resources and infrastructure that they need.
Also, For the Many engages in really deep student organizing. We’re organizing hundreds of students a year, bringing them in, doing political education, and working with them around our campaigns, but then also sending them out into the world as newly radical students who have a power analysis that matches the one that you and I have been talking about.
That’s where a lot of our power comes from. A lot of these really passionate young people realize the world is messed up and then realize it comes from a capitalist power dynamic, where a few greedy individuals are hoarding all the wealth and power. All these issues that we notice, whether it be racial justice or LGBTQ rights or global imperialism, are connected to that one. That crucial component comes in with our developing their political analysis and their doing work with us and going off into the world to make change.
The community meetings that we have are increasingly run by members and assisted by members who are going up our ladder of engagement. So many people have been brought into this movement beyond the policy victories. That’s probably the most powerful thing that we do: bring people together, organize them, and raise their political consciousness.