What would happen to health and housing in NYC if tenants had as much power as landlords?
New York City is in the throes of one of the worst housing crises in generations. Affordability is plummeting, displacement and homelessness have reached record levels, and the severe public health consequences of the living conditions that feed gentrification will be felt long into the future.
The topic has begun to make serious headlines due, in part, to the current NYCHA lead controversy and recent battles over the rezoning process. But NYC’s public housing residents and low-income tenants of color and immigrants in private buildings have been living different iterations of this crisis for decades.
In the Northern Manhattan neighborhoods, where WE ACT serves, we have long known that indoor conditions are inseparable from a host of chronic diseases, including asthma, lead poisoning, and anxiety and depression, which disproportionately afflict communities of color and low-income. City data and a growing body of public health scholarship and practice strongly back this up. In turn, proponents of “health equity”—from clinicians to policy makers—have increasingly stressed the need to intervene in this important social determinant of health.
Although media coverage of the crisis has tended to fixate on the negligence or misdeeds of bad actors, unjust housing conditions, like other forms of environmental racism, are fundamentally a system produced at the intersection of broader social, economic, and political forces. Landlords seem to realize this, and routinely exploit the marginality of certain identities, including targeting women, people of color, and those perceived to lack citizenship status. For those of us who care about the health and well-being of our communities, particularly public health advocates, we would be better served by attempting to undo the societal network of power and privilege that is made and remade through the medium of housing.
This means going beyond the standard tactics of expanding legal representation, know-your-rights education, and policy advocacy, which have been unable to slow down the crisis. New York City already has some of the country’s strongest housing laws on the books, but the huge structural incentive of vacancy decontrol coupled with the City’s inability to enforce housing code and punish bad actors and the real estate lobby’s chokehold on housing politics have all created a massive culture of lawlessness and impunity.
Seeking to maximize profits by deregulating apartments, landlords deliberately maintain unhealthy and unjust living conditions to push out longtime tenants and continuously up the rents. But while the profit motive of decontrol may be universal, the experience of displacement, like health, reflects racially disparate outcomes.
Take, for example, East Harlem/El Barrio. A 2016 study by the Regional Plan Association found that the neighborhood lost close to 2,000 units of affordable housing between 2011 and 2016, and projected that, if unabated, an additional 7,000 units would likely disappear over the next 10 years. Alarmingly, from 2000 to 2013, the neighborhood’s Latino and Black populations dropped by a massive 9% and 11% respectively, while the number of white residents more than doubled.
A brief analysis of city data reveals that since 2013, over 1.5 million housing complaints have been made to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the city agency tasked with enforcing housing law. Most of these complaints were made in Brooklyn (32%), the Bronx (31%), and Manhattan (22%), boroughs with significant populations of people of color and immigrants. During more or less the same period, about 4.9 million housing code violations have been recorded by HPD (and many more are likely present but not recorded). Over 75% of these violations are considered Class B and Class C, i.e., the most health hazardous and dangerous conditions, like rats, roaches, bed bugs, lead paint, and no heat or hot water.
In other words, landlords have publicly broken the law and endangered human health at least 5 million times in just under 6 years and have faced virtually no repercussions. For perspective, there are only 1.2 million total rent regulated apartments in New York City. With regards to the 2004 lead law, which WE ACT helped pass, a startling recent report by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest found:
“HPD enforcement data indicates that New York City has never taken any enforcement action against a single landlord for failing to conduct the mandated annual inspections in the 14 years since the law went into effect, even though the failure to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment.”
If that isn’t enough, take the fact that the NYC Public Advocate’s Office has published a list of the “worst landlords” each year since Mayor de Blasio occupied that role in 2010. When Public Advocate de Blasio introduced the webpage (which presented information already available from HPD), he touted it as an innovative pressure tactic that would help compel bad actor landlords to realize the error of their ways and obey the law. “We want these landlords to feel like they’re being watched,” de Blasio told the Daily News at the time of the launch, adding, “We need to shine a light on these folks to shame them into action.”
Clearly, the burn of public shame has forced none of them to see the light. But if these landlords fear not the law nor the City’s watchful eye, what will compel them? What other solutions might exist to help us face down this state of emergency?
Three Historical Proposals for Healthy Homes
Given the gravity of the present housing crisis, which threatens to make NYC unlivable for most current residents, it is clear that the prevailing approaches aren’t enough. We need to urgently explore, seed, and popularize alternative, bold solutions that boost the intrinsic strength of tenants and rebuild communities torn apart by unbridled gentrification.
Fortunately, New Yorkers have a rich and ongoing history of fighting for justice, and grassroots tenant struggles have been at the forefront of some of the most inspiring movements. It is time to take stock of where we’ve been, recalibrate our strategies, and broaden our strategic playbook with a few more systemic solutions:
1) Form a city-wide tenant union—with the main targets of gentrification and public housing residents at the helm—to exercise power and negotiate directly with landlords.
Tenants coming together in their communities and taking direct action has been the single best strategy to improve housing conditions, prevent unjust evictions, and transform neighborhoods into thriving, healthy communities. Effective in and of itself, tenant organizing also amplifies the impact of other tactics. For example, any tenant rights lawyer will tell you that HP actions (housing lawsuits) are far more effective when carried out by a group of tenants. The power of organizing has, of late, been held back by its current scale and pace, with most tenant organizations understandably focusing their limited resources on particular buildings, landlords, or neighborhoods.
At different points in time, however, New Yorkers have attempted to build an organization that covers tenants across the city. In the 1930’s, for example, those efforts manifested the City-Wide Tenants Council. Relatively short-lived, the City-Wide won important tenant victories in private and public housing, aligned itself with other social and economic justice struggles, and attempted to build a self-sustaining membership structure. Scholars of the movement posit that although the Council’s “legislative proposals and public relations work” was on par with the “real estate lobby and traditional housing reform organizations,” it unraveled over time due to its failure to develop the a broad and diverse leadership of tenants as well as the necessary internal infrastructure and resources to sustain itself.
In today’s context, we have a number of assets on our side that may offset this challenge: size, technology, experience, a range of amazing tenant-led community organizations, and a hostile political and economic climate that has activated broad swaths of the country. With a potential opening in the Senate, Albany could also become a far more favorable place for tenants.
At 70% of the total population, if rent-regulated and public housing residents (over 400,000 in NYCHA alone) united across the city, we could quickly become a major independent force for good, even out the inordinate power anti-tenant forces wield in local politics, and break ground for a healthier and more participatory civil society.
Beyond fundraising and infrastructure, we would need to ensure that those who are most-impacted by gentrification and displacement take the lead in the next wave of organizing. Women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQI people, and poor, working class, and homeless people must take the reins. Groups already engaged in tenant organizing could divide up turf and integrate their members into the design and execution of a bottom-up, city-level organizing drive. And groups with tenant members, including labor unions, civil rights organizations, and even arts and culture institutions, could all stand with this effort. While the details would need to be worked out, this is the strategy on which all others hinge.
If the landlords and developers from throughout NY have banded together to form organizations like the “Rent Stabilization Association” (a total misnomer) and can spend millions lobbying elected officials to crush tenant rights and prop up their narrow interests, why can’t a few million tenants do the same?
2) Invest in cooperative ownership and management of buildings.
Like direct organizing and action, cooperative housing has been used to provide housing to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers for generations. From Finnish immigrants in turn-of-the-century Sunset Park to today’s predominantly African-American Co-Op City in the Bronx, working people and their communities have long cut out the landlord’s needless profits and turned to each other to meet their housing needs. This has been especially true during moments of economic crisis, government neglect/disinvestment, and intensifying social divisions like our current moment.
Take the lesser-known United Workers’ Cooperative Colony in the Bronx. Established in the 1920’s by a group of mostly East European Jewish immigrants and labor organizers, “the Coops” grew to house over 700 families, and became an attractive alternative to the exploitative and discriminatory living and working conditions that poor and working-class people, particularly people of color, have routinely faced in the market.
Based on values of mutual-aid, solidarity, and cooperation, and decidedly not-for-profit, the Colony “encouraged cooperative activity in all aspects of life and […] was equipped with classrooms, a library, a gymnasium, and other facilities for social interaction.” They represented an anchor of justice and community in the neighborhood, and served as the site of organizing around a number of social and political issues, including racial justice and workers rights.
With both the private and public sector equally failing to provide quality and affordable housing for the majority of New Yorkers, it’s time to turn to each other to create the healthy homes and empowered communities we deserve.
3) Eliminate vacancy decontrol and overhaul housing code oversight and enforcement.
Eliminating vacancy decontrol and modernizing how the City enforces housing laws have been demanded for decades. If a landlord violates the housing code, harasses a tenant, or otherwise attempts to illegally deregulate a unit, the onus falls on the tenant to report the conditions to the NYC Department of HPD, ensure violations are recorded by HPD, and then follow up, generally through legal action.
As the data on complaints and violations above show, this is a long, costly, painful, and ultimately, ineffective process.
Instead of burdening tenants with missing work or school to pursue legal action in housing court, HPD could easily modernize its approach and implement a system of proactive or preventive enforcement, particularly if it partnered with organized tenants and a tenant oversight entity. Much like your annual physical or a business audit, it could perform ongoing monitoring of housing conditions, particularly in notoriously bad buildings, to ensure landlord compliance with the law.
As Movement for Justice in El Barrio has argued, the city should establish a city-wide oversight entity over HPD comprised of tenants. Currently, tenants have no real mechanism to hold this city agency accountable, and in Movement’s words, “Low-income, people of color and immigrant residents across the City find that inaction on the part of HPD leads to displacement and a weakening of their communities.”
This is a sound demand and it is backed by a number of precedents. The NYPD, another city agency like HPD, is overseen, ostensibly, by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and an independent Inspector General (IG) office. What Movement and others have proposed, however, would likely have more teeth and a united community to make it real. Both the CCRB and IG lack disciplinary power over police who commit misconduct or violence, but an HPD oversight body should have a voice in monitoring and correcting performance as necessary. With a budget of $870.5 million for FY 2019, it seems only right that tenants should have the ability hold this public agency accountable.
Health and housing justice are impossible to achieve if the structures of inequity and impunity remain intact. But tenants have and continue to assert their right to a dignified life through organizing and realizing solutions in their homes and communities. As the dual public-private housing crisis continues to hit low-income people of color the hardest, let’s all band together and uplift a different vision of this city where we can all belong.
As Equality for Flatbush says, “Before it’s gone / Take it back.”
Michael Velarde is a Chicano organizer, writer, and strategist originally from El Paso, TX. He has over a decade of grassroots community and labor organizing experience, spanning a range of issues, including immigrant rights, housing, and healthcare. Michael earned his B.A. in Sociology from Vassar College and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Labor Studies at the CUNY School of Labor & Urban Studies, where he is a recipient of the 2018 Joseph S. Murphy Scholarship for Diversity in Labor.
 To name a few: CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), Crown Heights Tenants Union, Equality for Flatbush, Flatbush Tenants Coalition, FUREE, GOLES, Mothers on the Move, Movement for Justice in El Barrio, and Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC).