Staying Power: Organizing for Affordable Housing in New York City, Past and Present

Crown Heights Tenant Union signs | Photo via UHAB

The banners of tenant activists in Brooklyn were bright and colorful, but their messages were deadly serious. “1 Crisis Away From Street” read one, while a twin declared, “Can’t Afford Rent Increase.” Flyers detailed the links between policing, redevelopment, displacement, and homelessness, while placards expressed solidarity from citywide housing organizations, local unions, and movements against racism and imperialism. One handout threw down the gauntlet, laying bare the stakes of the fight for affordable housing: “There is no place to move — so let’s stay and fight to the finish. Let’s not spare them the dirtiest part of their dirty work. Make them go as far as eviction.”

These particular messages are not from recent tenant protests and marches, but appear at We Won’t Move: Tenants Organize in New York City, the current exhibition at the Interference Archive, a space exploring cultural production and social movements located in Gowanus. Organized in collaboration with present-day activists, We Won’t Move illuminates the long history and remarkable continuity of organizing for affordable, safe, and stable housing in New York City. The exhibition is timely, and deliberately so: rent regulations protecting the affordability of nearly one million units of housing in the city are set to expire on June 15, as is the 421-a tax exemption, which the city uses to encourage construction of new affordable units. A battle — years in the making — is on among tenants, landlords, developers, housing advocates, unions, and politicians, all vying to determine how affordable housing will be built and preserved in an increasingly expensive and class-stratified city. In the midst of this fight, We Won’t Move offers an opportunity to consider the vital role that tenant organizers have played in shaping the contemporary city, as well as the challenges they face in fighting simultaneously to preserve their homes and offer alternative visions for future development.

“For the past century,” reads the text at the exhibition’s entrance, “New Yorkers have continuously organized to claim the right to live in a city that is integrated and affordable.” Historian Roberta Gold, who served as an advisor for the exhibition, documents the many overlapping cycles of organizing that produced this continuity — and a durable movement — in her illuminating 2014 book When Tenants Claimed the City: The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing. Though We Won’t Move and Gold’s book both celebrate connections between the past and present of this movement, they are clear that the context in which it operates has evolved considerably since the Second World War. Tracing this trajectory, these histories offer an important revision of dominant narratives of “decline and rebirth” in New York City over the latter half of the 20th century, one that bolsters the claims of tenants today.

Gold’s book begins with federally funded postwar suburbanization, which shifted jobs and (certain) people out of cities. The exhibition begins with suburbanization’s local counterpart: urban renewal, the process of federally sponsored “slum clearance” that critics quickly dubbed “Negro removal” for its disastrous effects on communities of color. Highway construction served both masters, gutting “slums” while facilitating sprawl. Together, these processes sorted people and wealth throughout the postwar metropolis, remaking and amplifying divides of race, class, and gender in American life.

Tenant activists, Gold argues, swam against this tide, seeking a more humane and equitable city. They pushed the federal government to extend rent control to New York City in 1943, and they successfully lobbied the state to preserve it in 1950 after federal programs expired. Organizers partnered with civil rights leaders to demand the integration of new housing, forcing major landlords to change their policies and winning a statewide fair housing law in 1958. They also fought the destruction and re-segregation of housing wrought by urban renewal projects, articulating the value of close-knit, long-running communal life in “slum” neighborhoods.

As government dollars and landlords began to abandon the city in the late 1960s, leaving its housing to rot, tenant organizers stayed on, fighting for repairs in court, new protections in the legislature, and even taking over abandoned buildings throughout the 1970s. They won new rent regulations in 1969 and 1974, despite the rise both locally and nationally of conservative politicians who opposed antipoverty programs and championed free-market principles. Squatters and their allies rehabilitated scores of buildings, encouraging the city and state to create new programs for resident management of abandoned properties. By the 1980s, activists met new challenges — homelessness, AIDS, and gentrification (which Mayor Ed Koch cited as a goal at his 1978 inauguration) — with resources amassed in scarce but hopeful moments. As one tenant recalled to Gold, their efforts carved out “a piece of heaven in hell.”

How did tenant activists accomplish all of this, whether faced with Robert Moses’ bulldozers, the fires of neglect and insurance fraud, or dirty tricks of gentrifying landlords? Like today’s marchers, tenants worked at many levels, lobbying legislators to create and improve rent regulations, employing judicial strategies to keep people in their homes, and leading direct tenant organizing efforts and rent strikes at the building level. Gold emphasizes the importance of women’s leadership in building intergenerational, multiracial, cross-class coalitions to carry out these campaigns. Bonds of feminist solidarity, whether explicitly defined as such or not, connected Old Left rent strikers to New Left squatters, and helped organizers pitch tents big enough to shelter white-gloved church ladies and black-gloved anti-imperialist freedom fighters. On one wall of We Won’t Move, a photo of the People’s Housing Court, convened by the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and the Met Council (among others) in 1970, captures this coalition building in action. The diversity of the scene, at a moment that many New York historians describe as racially divided, is a testament to the integrative power of tenant organizing. It also looks a lot like the diversity of the tenant marches and direct actions that have stopped traffic in the city over the past month.

The arc traced by these histories suggests, contrary to popular perception, that efforts for “community control” and self-determination by radical New York activists yielded significant material results in the form of tenant protections and affordable housing decades after the supposed decline and fracture of mid-century social movements. Gold and the Interference Archive also demonstrate that bottom-up organizing — not just top-down planning or gentrifying “pioneers” (as Koch called them) — helped preserve and rebuild pieces of New York City in its leanest years. From this history an argument emerges, one that I heard from a longtime community organizer in Crown Heights at my first community meeting in 2008. “You are here,” she told the new arrivals, “because of the work we did to improve this neighborhood over the last 25 years.” The claim is simple: after staying when everyone else left and articulating a right to the city, the diverse communities threatened by gentrification and displacement have earned the opportunity to stay.

Display at the Interference Archive’s We Won’t Move | Photo by Nick Juravich

Whether this argument — buoyed by the lobbying, coalition building, and direct action that tenant organizers do so well — will carry the day in Albany is yet to be determined. On the heels of a tenant march over the Brooklyn Bridge in May, Democrats in the State Assembly introduced a bill that includes key tenant demands, among them the repeal of vacancy decontrol (which currently allows vacant apartments renting for over $2,500 to be removed from the rent stabilization system), a decrease in allowable rent increases for vacant apartments (down to 7.5% from the current 20%), and a shift in the way costs of improvements are passed on to tenants (making them temporary charges, not permanent rent increases, thus preventing apartments from being priced out of the stabilization system due to standard upgrades). Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for similar measures, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has been slow to embrace reform, only publicly stating for the first time on Saturday his support for changes to vacancy decontrol provisions after months of calling for existing laws’ renewal.

Tenant organizers have pushed their elected representatives to seek changes by showing that current protections are insufficient. In Crown Heights, one group of tenants had their rents doubled last fall after a landlord exploited a loophole in the current laws. The Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a leader in the fight to organize tenants and a co-sponsor of We Won’t Move, has responded with a combination of legal and direct action on behalf of tenants while joining citywide demonstrations in support of stronger rent regulations. Their “tenant union” model dates back a century, to when leftist Jewish unionists brought direct action, shop-floor tactics home to their Lower East Side tenements. These women and men withheld rent to win collective bargaining with their landlords, seeking guarantees of stability. As Gold notes, their daughters and sons became the leading activists of the Depression generation, helping win implementation of federal rent control. The CHTU has also taken a page from many generations of tenant activism by working across lines of race and class, bringing new arrivals — who often move into newly-deregulated units and confront skyrocketing rents a year later — and longtime residents together. While realtors fight the CHTU in court, their organizing has given tenants a powerful new voice in one of the city’s fastest-changing neighborhoods.

Crown Heights Tenant Union rally | Photo via UHAB

Looking around Crown Heights, one doesn’t just see old buildings changing hands and new tenants displacing longtime residents. The neighborhood, like many in New York City, is also experiencing a building boom, particularly in its recently-upzoned northwestern corner. Much new development in New York City takes advantage of the city’s 421-a tax abatement program, created in the 1970s to spur development in a then-shrinking city and tinkered with over the years to encourage developers to construct affordable units in exchange for sizable tax breaks. In its current form, 421-a has been rightfully derided as both expensive and ineffective. Estimates suggest that it costs the City somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million per affordable unit, and organizers argue that it does little to stop the upward spiral of housing costs. As Esteban Giron, a CHTU organizer, told Gothamist, “In four years my neighborhood is going to bleed more affordable housing than the Mayor could ever build in 50 years.” A range of activists and commentators, including the New York Times, have advocated scrapping the program entirely. However, a widely-cited report from New York University’s Furman Center notes that the onerous tax burdens on multi-family housing (not discussed in the current debate) make it impossible for de Blasio’s affordable housing plan to generate new units under current conditions without significant subsidies and tax incentives.

Getting new, affordable housing built has long challenged organizers and politicians alike, in no small part because such projects involve many stakeholders: real estate developers, present and future residents, building-trades workers and their unions, and politicians, to name just a few of the key players. Historically, tenant organizers have worked hard to promote visions for equitable and affordable development that have often proved elusive. Even We Won’t Move captures this in an oblique way: while the clear demands and pronouncements of tenant campaigns adorn the walls, community-based development plans sit in a vitrine in the middle of the room, impressive in their heft but beyond comprehension, save for two reproduced for consumption by visitors. This is not a knock on the exhibition, but their presentation serves to note that even as historical documents these visions take great time and imagination to comprehend — especially given that most were never implemented.

Ad from Up4NYC, a coalition of labor unions and contractors lobbying to include prevailing wage requirements in a reformed 421-a program. Governor Cuomo has received the coalition’s support after opposing Mayor de Blasio’s reform plan, which would guarantee prevailing wages for service workers but not construction workers.

Gold, of course, has read these plans and studied the efforts of ordinary New Yorkers to promote and realize alternatives to dominant development paradigms. The record is a difficult and mixed one. While advocates of affordable housing fought for social housing plans in the 1940s and 1950s, their counterparts began to realize that the heavy-handed clearance these projects generated both displaced residents and often destroyed nearly as much if not more affordable housing than they created. The labor movement split over questions of development, with progressive, left-leaning unions like Local 1199 (today 1199/SEIU) joining residents in promoting alternative plans for development on unused sites over slum clearance, while building-trades unions enthusiastically supported slum clearance and urban renewal for the jobs they generated. In a fascinating chapter titled “To Plan Our Own Community,” Gold notes that “the short half-life and limited scope of federal support set the ultimate limits on the achievements of community-based planning” in the 1960s and 1970s, but still cites partnerships — including the housing built by and for working-class 1199 employees in East Harlem — that “showed not only that democratic state-sponsored urban renewal was possible, but that New York’s tenant history made a difference.”

Historical fissures in the labor movement have moved to the fore in the current fight over 421-a with weighty implications for the futures of both rent regulations and subsidies for affordable housing. De Blasio’s plan contains a prevailing-wage provision for service workers in subsidized buildings but not for construction workers who build them. Cuomo has exploited this omission — which de Blasio claims makes the construction of new housing more affordable — by arguing that any restructuring of the program should include prevailing wage provisions for all workers. Cuomo appears to be undermining the Mayor’s plan in order to see it fail, while de Blasio’s decision was likely informed both by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which supports his plan and fears cost increases from construction more than service work, and by his relative closeness to left-leaning service unions (and comparative distance from the right-leaning builders). Tenants, who hoped to see considerable heft added to the program, if not a new one entirely, have been left with precious little political space in which to advance their own vision. Historically, the politics of new development breed strange bedfellows and compromises, but it seems unlikely that a truly progressive and effective plan will emerge at this stage.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a rally to strengthen rent laws on Saturday, June 6. | Photo by Rob Bennett, via NYC Mayor’s Office

With respect to both rent regulations and 421-a, Cuomo has claimed that a “more stable situation” in Albany (i.e., when the Senate and Assembly majority leaders hadn’t both been recently indicted on corruption charges) would incline him to negotiate. However, if stability is the Governor’s concern, he may be looking in the wrong place. Gold quotes an interview with the “radical democratic urban planner” Walter Thabit, who reminisced, “We did our greatest things right after a period of great riots.” Gold’s study bears out Thabit’s claim, at least in part. The federal government brought rent control to New York City in 1943 after Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. explained that summer’s uprising in the context of “the unusual high rents and cost of living forced upon the Negroes.” Two decades later, Mayor Robert F. Wagner created and strengthened protections for tenants after Harlem organizer Jesse Gray compared Harlem landlords to Mississippi segregationists in the wake of the neighborhood’s 1964 rebellion. At the state level, the creation of the rent stabilization program in 1969 followed a wave of urban uprisings in 1968 that spared New York City, but only barely. Housing crises did not ignite these conflicts — in nearly every case, police brutality was the spark — but they shaped the inequalities that brought residents out of their homes and into conflict with police, and they informed the critiques that activists and politicians used to demand not just better policing, but a more equitable society.

We live today in a new age of urban inequality, and a new era of urban uprisings. #BlackLivesMatter activists have connected protests against police brutality to ongoing struggles for economic equality, including the minimum wage #Fightfor15 and campaigns for affordable housing. In the years leading up to the emergence of this movement, New York City activists have consistently critiqued the connections between racialized policing and rapid gentrification, a phenomenon I reported on in Crown Heights earlier in the decade. None of this has generated an uprising in New York City on the scale of those in Ferguson and Baltimore, but it is not hard to imagine a combination of displacement and brutality doing so. Still, we can hope that “great work” needn’t only follow “great riots.” A way forward exists where Governor Cuomo can work in partnership with New York City tenants and their mayor to build a more stable, equitable city. The Governor took the first steps down this path on Saturday when he tentatively embraced tenant demands for new legislation on vacancy decontrol, preferential rents, and major capital improvements. Tenant activists have blazed the trail; let’s hope Cuomo continues down it.

 

Nick Juravich is a doctoral candidate in US History at Columbia University, where he studies social movements, education, labor, and urban policy in the 20th century. He also serves as Scholar-in-Residence at Metropolitan College of New York. He lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.



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