New York State voters had hoped that the departure of disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2021 would allow for more progressive legislation under his centrist and relatively unknown Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. But in 2022, when Hochul defeated Republican candidate Lee Zeldin in the closest New York gubernatorial election since 1994 and Democrats lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives after Republicans flipped four congressional seats across the state, those hopes vanished. Hochul tacked right, and this year’s budget negotiations indicate why left-wing voters in New York are so unhappy with the Democratic Party establishment and eager to push for change, both at the ballot box and in the streets.
Although she supported the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), the most progressive such act in the country, Hochul failed to pass substantial housing and economic policies – both of which are critical to elevate the multiracial working-class – and delayed passage of the budget until she had rolled back some provisions of New York’s landmark bail reform law passed in 2019.
Criminal Legal System Reform
Activists had worked for years to end cash bail and stop the practice of keeping so many people unable to meet bail locked up while they waited for their trials. Hochul ended the “least restrictive” standard for judges when considering bail, and she expanded the state police, which will lead to higher rates of pretrial detention and incarceration in working-class Black and brown communities. In fact, Hochul’s plan included $66 million to increase the number of state police academy classes and the number of troopers dedicated to addressing serious crime. Hochul has said that blaming bail laws for crime is “absurd,” yet she has advocated for judges to “look at other factors” when considering bail. What are these other factors? Put simply, she’s talking about race.
Considered in the 2022 state legislative session, the Clean Slate Act would require that criminal records be sealed after three years for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies once someone has successfully completed their sentence, is not on community supervision, and has not incurred any new charges or convictions. Additionally, the New York City Council is currently considering the Fair Chance for Housing Act, which would prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of a person’s arrest or criminal record. Instead of supporting non-punitive policies that have the potential to reduce recidivism by granting formerly incarcerated populations a fair chance to secure housing and employment, Hochul has supported policies that expand the carceral state and perpetuate the stigma against formerly incarcerated populations.
The Housing Crisis
Despite claiming in her State of the State address that “housing is a human right,” the governor made no effort to address the housing crisis in the state. Nearly half of New York City residents are rent-burdened, and median rent prices have reached a whopping $4,200 per month in Manhattan for a one-bedroom apartment. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (HSTPA) set the framework for tenants’ rights, but the bill is not comprehensive enough to prevent landlords from exploiting poor tenants. The HSTPA eliminated the decontrol threshold for rent-stabilized apartments, eliminated vacancy and longevity increases, required that preferential rents operate as legal rents for the life of tenancies, and outlawed tenant blacklisting, among others. But, notably, it failed to address lease renewals and rent increases for non-rent regulated apartments.
Good Cause Eviction, which was introduced by DSA member and State Senator Julia Salazar, would grant the right to lease renewals and set a cap on yearly rent increases. The bill would prevent landlords from evicting tenants due to rent increases that exceed 3% or are one-and-a-half times the local consumer price index that adjusts for inflation, whichever is higher. Millions of households in New York would be protected by Good Cause Eviction, and the law is more important now than ever because state courts have ruled that municipalities cannot pass local Good Cause Eviction laws. The Good Cause Eviction bill was first introduced in 2019, and it has failed in every single legislative session since then. In 2019, activists had hoped that “Good Cause Eviction” provisions would be included in the HSTPA, but rental protections for non-rent regulated tenants were decoupled from the bill. When confronted about tenant protections, Governor Hochul deflected, which demonstrates how beholden she is to landlords and developers in the state.
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) needs a bailout. More than 70,000 NYCHA tenants owe $466 million in back rent, and this does not account for the maintenance backlog plaguing public housing. In 2018, the agency said it needed a staggering $32 billion to address underlying problems in its buildings. This problem has only ballooned since the pandemic. As a result of systemic disinvestment, NYCHA released a report in 2022 outlining the need for more than $40 billion in funding to address major repairs. While the governor’s plan expanded the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) for NYCHA and Section 8 voucher recipients, the budget fell short of the total rejuvenation of New York’s public housing system.
A bill introduced by State Senator Jessica Ramos would have raised the minimum wage to $21.25 per hour in New York City and $20 per hour upstate by 2026. Instead, Hochul settled on a plan that raises the minimum wage to $17 per hour by 2026. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for an adult in the New York City metropolitan area is $22.51 per hour, and for a family with one adult and one child, the living wage rises to more than $44 per hour. Under Hochul’s plan, a household with one adult earning the minimum wage falls short by more than $5 per hour, and a household with one adult and one child falls short by a staggering $27 per hour. New York is the most unequal state in the nation, and this is because New York fails to tax billionaires and raise the wages of ordinary New Yorkers.
Environmental Justice Was a Bright Spot
In 2022, the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) endorsed seven new candidates, and two candidates prevailed. Kristen Gonzalez defeated Elizabeth Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 59th State Senate District, and Sarahana Shrestha defeated Kevin Cahill in the Democratic primary for New York’s 103rd State Assembly District. Notably, Shrestha is the first democratic socialist Assembly member in the Hudson Valley. Gonzalez and Shrestha won their races by 25.6 points and 3.6 points, respectively. But, what is perhaps more profound is the fact that the growing power of socialists in the state put pressure on the Democratic establishment to pass key green energy policies.
The BPRA, which was included in the state budget, will empower New York’s public power provider to generate all of its power from clean energy, and it will bring working-class control over the energy system of the state. It also allows the public utility to build and own renewables. The New York Power Authority (NYPA) is the largest state public utility in the country, and Hochul’s willingness to support clean energy means that environmental justice is a winning issue.
Under the BPRA, the NYPA is authorized and directed by law to reach 70% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% clean energy by 2040. The bill also establishes an Office of Just Transition to ensure that fossil fuel workers can move to green energy jobs. As a part of the law’s commitment to ensure an inclusive and equitable democratic planning process, the NYPA will be required to work with climate experts, unions, and community leaders to create biennial plans for building public renewables.
The Public Power NY Coalition was so successful because it campaigned in the communities most affected by the greed of private utility companies. The movement, which was pioneered by the ecosocialists working group of the NYC-DSA, ran a coordinated campaign against rate hike requests from Con Edison and canvassed in communities that had experienced power cutoffs due to grid failures. The Public Power campaign focused on clear and concise messaging, such as “it’s time to take our power back,” and refrained from using confusing jargon. The ecosocialists working group even led an opposition campaign in New York’s 21st State Senate District after Kevin Parker, the sponsor of the bill, tried to weaken the law. As a result, the bill was passed with an overwhelming majority in the legislature.
DSA should not just stop with the BPRA. Housing justice, racial justice, and climate justice are inextricably intertwined. Public control over power will rebuild New York’s infrastructure, protect public health, conserve the environment, and democratize the economy. For far too long marginalized communities have been considered “disposable” by fossil fuel companies and landlords. Data shows that Black and brown communities bear the burden of pollution inequity caused by wealthy white people. There is an excessive burden placed on the health of populations near sources of air pollution caused by wealthy white people’s consumption of goods and services. According to a study, Black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than is caused by their consumption, and Hispanics are exposed to 63% more pollution than is caused by their consumption. New York has become the first state to ban natural gas stoves in most new buildings by 2026. A new measure bans gas-powered stoves, furnaces, and propane heating and will require all-electric heating and cooking in new buildings shorter than seven stories by 2026 and for taller buildings by 2029. Although the measure does not completely outlaw gas stoves in all buildings, which contributes to higher rates of asthma in predominantly Black and brown communities, the state can and should force landlords to ensure all buildings rely on clean energy for all New Yorkers, not just people who live in new developments. The state should also invest more resources to make public buildings energy-efficient.
Can Economic Justice Be as Much of a Winning Issue as the Environment?
New Yorkers across the state support raising the minimum wage, passing tenant protections, and working to improve racial equity, but many voters have become disenchanted by the status quo. And, as a result, many people don’t vote. In fact, fewer New Yorkers cast ballots in 2022 than they did in the prior midterm and statewide elections four years ago. Hochul campaigned on improving public safety, yet she has supported policies that discriminate against Black and brown New Yorkers. Hochul campaigned on economic justice, yet she refuses to tax the rich and pass the Raise the Wage Act. Hochul campaigned on housing justice, yet her plan doesn’t include a single policy to prevent landlords from unjustly evicting tenants due to rent increases. Democratic lawmakers in New York say they support bold progressive change; it is time for them to start voting like it.
And it’s time for us to see that they do.