Tenant Power, Pasta and Politics

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In December, 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made this announcement: “The weak
political constituency for the Department of Housing and Urban Development makes it a prime
candidate for cuts.”

Within two weeks, Bill Clinton caved in to Gingrich’s agenda, proposing to convert project-based
Section 8 rent subsidies into vouchers that would drive tenants into the tight, overpriced housing
market. Thus began a full-scale attack on the 300,000 New York City tenants who rely on federal
rent subsidies and public housing. Then, in 1996, Newt and his crew dropped a bomb by trying
to eliminate the Brooke Amendment, which caps rent paid by public housing and Section 8
tenants at 30 percent of their income.

The outlook seemed bleak and many housing advocates began discussing the “inevitability” of
these changes.

Luckily, tenants did not. Thanks to grassroots pressure and skillful, creative lobbying, we are
winning the war, despite the opposition of the three most powerful men in the country: Clinton,
Gingrich and Bob Dole.

With a Democratic President lobbying for anti-tenant legislation, we had to be smart in selecting
our political bedfellows. In New York the key target was obvious: Senator Al D’Amato, the
Republican Long Islander who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over housing
policy.

But getting D’Amato’s attention was no easy task. We had to be persistent, nearly obsessive. We
met with his staff several times, requesting a face-to-face with the senator, but each time they
brushed us off with “The senator is a busy man.” We sent a sign-on letter endorsed by 148
tenant and housing organizations statewide. Still no meeting.

Finally, we got wind that D’Amato and his buddy Howard Stern were holding a joint book
signing in Manhattan. On less than a day’s notice we were able to muster only half a dozen
tenants. We laid down our $15 for D’Amato’s autobiography, “Power, Pasta and Politics,”
grabbed a book and inched forward on the line.

While the Senator signed his book, one of our tenant leaders asked him for a meeting – and
D’Amato, to our surprise, readily agreed. I never knew that $15 could buy so much influence.

When we eventually met with him in the fall of 1995, D’Amato seemed ready to cut our visit
short until a grandmother in our delegation presented him with a gift-wrapped box of imported
spaghetti. It worked. The senator sat down and gave us five more minutes. Then he pledged to
oppose Clinton’s voucher plan in writing. Not only had we given D’Amato an opportunity to
make inroads with tenants – we had given him a chance to criticize the White House.

Later, D’Amato invited me to testify against the administration proposal. He also tore into the
voucher plan, which many Republicans religiously supported. “It doesn’t work in New York
City, where you have a two percent vacancy rate and vouchers can be exercised maybe 65
percent of the time,” he said to the assembled committee.

Tenants won. This fall, Congress passed a major reform bill which allows virtually no
vouchering-out.

Simultaneously, the battle over public housing and Section 8 intensified. Two bills were on the
table. We opposed both. The harsher measure, sponsored by another Long Island Republican,
Rep. Rick Lazio, would almost totally have wiped out the Brooke rent caps and included a radical
experiment to deregulate the New York City Housing Authority. The second bill was sponsored
by D’Amato himself.

The politics here were tricky. Our strategy was this: persuade D’Amato to oppose Lazio’s bill,
while pressuring other members of Congress not to embrace D’Amato’s bill, which itself
substantially weakened rent caps. Thousands of New York City tenants wrote letters, we kept up
the lobbying and D’Amato held the line. By September, Lazio’s bill was dead and the 104th
Congress recessed.

Unfortunately we don’t have much time to celebrate. The current Section 8 law will be in effect
for only one year and we are lobbying for the long-term preservation of the program, as well as
new provisions to give tenants a say over how their buildings are managed and maintained.

And, ironically, our successful battle against Lazio’s public housing bill may make this year’s
fight even more difficult. Because Lazio lost so much credibility last session, D’Amato’s bill
could become the only game in town. If that happens, we will have to work hard to oppose
provisions of the Senator’s bill while trying to maintain the alliance we forged with him on
project-based Section 8.

Hopefully we can navigate these rough currents, but the dilemma exposes our fundamental
challenge: We need to move from the defense to the offense. Just a year ago, such a goal would
have seemed unattainable.

That was before we proved Gingrich was wrong. Tenants are strong.