Huge NY State Tenants Rights Victory: How It Happened

Tenants from NYC and upstate jammed Albany’s Empire State Plaza before heading into the capitol to pressure Governor Cuomo and members of the NY State Assembly and Senate, June 11. Photo by Carin van der Donk.

The rent reform legislation that passed the NY State Assembly and Senate June 14 was a major victory for millions of tenants across the state, especially in New York City. It was also a super-sweet organizing success for DSA and its allies, who formed the core of the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance that made it happen. It’s a victory with massive impact that holds useful lessons for future organizing.

No longer will landlords be able to jack up the rent by 20% each time an apartment becomes vacant or  by 6% after “major capital improvements” like fixing a boiler, or even just grouting and re-tiling a bathroom. New York tenants had won rent control or “rent stabilization” over decades of struggle going back to the 1930s. Over the years, the powerful landlord lobby dedicated itself – and its millions – to ending these crucial rent protections. And they were succeeding. The NYC public policy research group City Limits said in 2015 that New Yorkers “lost more than 200,000 units of rent-regulated housing in three decades,” and the rate has increased by more than 50 percent since 2012, for the loss of another 100,000 units. The new tenants’ rights legislation rolls back many of the landlord gains and protects tenants against evictions that have caused a non-stop surge in homelessness in recent years.

The landlord lobby was caught flatfooted. Despite large contributions to political leaders, including New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, they no longer had the votes they’d been counting on.

This victory has been years in the making, said lead organizer Cea Weaver of NYC-DSA’s Citywide Universal Rent Control Committee. More than 70 tenant organizations and community groups across the state built “a really collective effort to come together and make something beautiful happen.” 

Weaver noted that “over the course of this multi-year campaign, NYC-DSA members knocked on doors, organized in their buildings, hosted tenant town halls, led media and research projects, participated in direct actions, organized alongside other DSA branches and tenant organizations statewide, and even helped elect a socialist to the State Senate.” 

That senator, Julia Salazar, proposed a “good cause” eviction bill that would have extended protections to millions of currently unregulated tenants. The bill didn’t make it into the final package of reforms. “This [defeat] and the watered-down reforms to Major Capital Improvements and Individual Apartment Improvements are a testament to the enormous powers of capital,” Weaver continued. “We were fighting for zero percent rent increases following major repairs, arguing that landlords have an obligation to maintain the buildings. Upstate landlords have been permitted to jack up rents by 15% after major repairs. The new laws knock that down to 2% – same as NYC.” 

The reforms may be only a partial victory, but they still caught the real-estate industry off guard. “Strengthened protections for regulated tenants and the potential expansion of rent stabilization will not only help people stay in their homes; it will bring tenants new freedom to organize and to fight for even more radical reforms,” Weaver commented. 

Despite years of organizing, many observers believe that it was the political conditions created by the progressive movement in the 2018 elections that made the difference. “Just having a socialist in the State Senate – Julia Salazar – was a very important factor,” Weaver said. The DSA Brooklyn branch pulled out all the stops in Salazar’s campaign last year: mobilizing across the Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint and Cypress Hills neighborhoods that make up the 18th NY State Senate district. The synergistic excitement generated by the campaign helped make the Brooklyn branch DSA’s largest in New York City

NYC DSAers crowded into buses for “Tenant Tuesday” in Albany June 11, 2019. Photo by Camilla Wasserman.

DSA certainly didn’t work alone. Strong collaboration with such groups as New York Communities for Change (NYCC) in Brooklyn, Woodside on the Move and Make the Road NY in Queens, and in the Bronx, CASA: Community Action for Safe Apartments and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition has introduced DSA to activists so that “the tenants’ movement is actually joining the socialist movement,” Weaver commented. NYCC has been aligning with DSA over the last two years, explicitly endorsing DSA candidates in a number of races. Manhattan partners included the Met Council on Housing and a newly emerged Chinatown tenants movement fighting gentrification on the Lower East Side. Upstate, major strength came from the Buffalo, Rochester, and Kingston tenants’ unions. The key lesson: “No one of these organizations can change the world the way we can when we all work together,” Weaver said.

Next up are efforts to fully fund public housing, which requires a combination of federal, state, and local money. As Weaver notes, the reforms won this year “will significantly change the terrain on which we organize. But they will not change our need to organize. There is still a world to win!”