New Orleans For tenant activists and organizers around the country and the world, rent control, real rent control, often seems like gold at the end of the rainbow, almost a mirage, certainly unattainable, and perhaps not worth the struggle. New York City has long been a beacon for tenants trying to win such protections, even if the light from those policies has been flickering and rising rents have made the divide between landlords and tenants unbridgeable. Overcoming fierce opposition by landlord lobbyists and decades of erosion of protection in the one-million rent-regulated apartments in New York City and a loss of tens of thousands of affordable housing units, a coalition of tenant advocates and organizations, Housing Justice for All, managed to win a historic agreement that would strengthen rather than weaken the rules. This is huge!
Here are key elements of the final agreement worth noting:
Rent control would be expanded statewide offering cities and towns the ability to create their own rent control policies.
So-called “vacancy decontrol” would be abolished.This provision had allowed landlords to take units out of rent protections after rents passed a specified benchmark. The New York Times noted that 155,000 units had been lost in the last 30 years due to this provision.
The so-called “vacancy bonus” would be abolished.This provision had enabled landlords to skyrocket the rents by 20% whenever a tenant vacated a rent-controlled unit.
Provisions were strengthened to provide tools to tenants to fight reno-raises, as I would call them, which are increases imposed by landlords when they renovate units or make improvements in the building, some of which were little more than cosmetic, but allowed rents to be gentrified, a problem we see around the world.
Rent discounts called “preferential rents” would be made permanent preventing huge bumps when a rent control tenant renews a lease.
I understand we’re in the weeds here, but watching what happens to the real estate market for tenants in New York in the next couple of years will be critically important. If it works, as we believe it should, and it expands to cities and towns from Buffalo to Syracuse to wherever in New York State, it may serve even more successfully as a model for tenant victories in the future where the special, sui generis nature of the big Apple itself has been a barrier in the debate, even as it has been a beacon of hope.
The fight is not over. Eviction protections for tenants in market rate units not under rent control did not improve which is a disappointment. As Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, the former New York ACORN, was quoted in the Times, “…this is a huge win for the tenant movement that will impact the lives of millions of renters … but we also feel we have a long way to go.”
Amen, and many of us will be trying to follow your lead!
Milwaukee A funny thing happened on the way to the 2020 presidential primaries in the long shadow of the Great Recession of 2007: Democrats are finally discovering the tenants living right under their noses, and the fact that the American dream is no longer home ownership, it’s affordable housing. One candidate after another, elbowing to get to the top of the heap is advocating some kind of plan to address the soaring housing costs in cities around the country.
The latest in the new Tenant Sweepstakes is Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey who has now announced his plan. It has a big price tag and a huge footprint. His campaign claims his plan, if implemented, would benefit 57 million Americans including 17 million children. The central objective, importantly is family-based, rather than developer centered. Booker’s plan would create an entitlement so that a family’s rental costs would be capped at no more than 30% of their income and make up the difference between that number and fair market rent in the family’s neighborhood. Booker’s plan would involve an income transfer through a tax credit. It’s pricey. Reporting in the New York Times offered further details, saying,
“There would not be an income cap limiting who could qualify, according to the campaign, which said the median participating family would receive $4,800 per year. His campaign estimated the program would cost $134 billion annually. It did not propose specifically how to pay for the plan beyond rolling back changes to the estate tax made by President Trump, which it said would raise about $25 billion annually. The remainder, the campaign said, would come from restoring various taxes that were cut in the Republican-led tax overhaul from 2017.”
Now, let’s agree, this is a bold and exciting plan on a number of levels, regardless of the fact that Booker is sitting at 2% in the polls and is carrying huge, almost disqualifying baggage from his courtship with billionaires and Wall Street over the years and the charter school and Facebook debacle in Newark while he was mayor. I also don’t want to get in the weeds with speculation about whether calculating the spread between 30% of income and the family’s neighborhood would subsidize a family’s residence in a lower income neighborhood and not impact gentrification and exacerbate segregation. The campaign estimates that the median benefit would be $4800 per year, but that certainly wouldn’t allow a family, following Booker’s own personal narrative, to move into a gentrified area with good schools and opportunity to increase their tax credit. I can just imagine the outcry from existing communities about families moving to their areas to expand their tax credits. They would be changing the name of that website to NOT Next Door!
The exciting thing has to be that the door is opening for tenants and affordable housing to be at the center of a political campaign waged against an upscale condo developer now living in public housing in the White House. I like that contrast. Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren also have housing proposals of interest, and with Booker putting his bet on the table, we can bet the others are going to have to match that ante as well, so the odds of something happening increases, if any of them are able to beat Trump’s current lease on the presidency.