The battle over rent regulations is a “fire keg” waiting to go off. After years in the Australian union movement it’s easy for me to see this issue has all the ingredients for a major fight: An angry community that is well-led and sick of being treated unfairly, of being pushed around by developers and landlords who have one goal in mind – making money at their expense.
In my experience, a good movement can use the arrogance of the powerful against them.
When the Real Estate Board of New York’s influential outgoing president, Steven Spinola, was asked recently if he was happy with the results of the past state election in which REBNY invested heavily, he replied to Real Estate Weekly: “When you win 100 percent, you can’t be much happier. Is that braggy?”
Indeed, such confidence spills over to what Spinola believes will be achieved in 2015, stating to the Wall Street Journal: “Communities will ask why their neighborhood were chosen for that new development, and will want to know how high, how dense the construction will be. We think the mayor will listen to their concerns, but in the end will say we have to have that housing.”
According to published research, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and the 37 companies comprising its leadership have contributed $43.9 million to state and local candidates, committees, and PACs since 2005. Real-estate interests want more landlord-friendly laws that permit rents closer to free market prices, that move away from the ‘inflexibility’ of rent stabilized and controlled apartments. They’re betting their influence over political leaders will mean they get modified laws that favor them. Clearly they are a very confident and powerful industry.
But if they think it will be that easy then they are underestimating their opponents.
Community groups representing the thousands of tenants in the city are well-led, well-supported, well-connected and have the motivation to give their opponents a run for their money. Recent experiences elsewhere have shown that even movements with a lack of a central command can still mobilize quickly and cause the city’s decision makers plenty of headaches.
There are a series of anti-gentrification group’s throughout the city. In Brooklyn I’ve been to a few of their meetings. Equality for Flatbush was one of them. Their meeting on December 16th at the Flatbush Library was full of concerned tenants. They wanted to learn more about what was going on in their neighborhood on housing, and what they could do about it. Attendees told of horrific indignities suffered at the hands of landlords. One had repairs to his apartment pipes delayed so long that manure dripped onto his apartment floor. Story after story of techniques that landlords use to bump up rent prices or put pressure on residents to leave – to be replaced by new residents capable of paying much higher rates. There is genuine anger in the community.
City housing inspectors are viewed as few too few in number and too timid with their powers. When tenants end up in housing court there isn’t much success. That may be because 90 percent of tenants in housing court don’t have an attorney. Conversely, approximately 90 percent of landlords do. Eviction can be catastrophic. 30,000 families were ousted in 2013—a 20 percent increase over the previous 10 years. Approximately one-third of persons in homeless shelters entered the system immediately after an eviction.
Maybe that’s why Equality for Flatbush drew a strong and passionate crowd. Activists from other areas of New York attended too. They shared their success stories of overcoming the tough laws they see as favoring landlords. Everyone comes together through an active communication channel between groups and individuals. This will need to be used effectively in the lead up to June. It was through this channel that I found out about and attended another meeting only several miles away in Crown Heights.
The group Movement to Protect the People (MTPP), has been vehemently fighting to protect their community from developers attempting to ‘up-zone’ and build high rise buildings in their area. This well-led group has a proven track record of galvanizing Crown Heights, the most crowded community in all of Brooklyn, with 66,400 people per square mile. In numbers, they have a powerful base.
Well-organized, well-led and intelligent, MTPP has learnt from development in other areas of Brooklyn, such as, Williamsburg, Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn.
Many say gentrification is a complex phenomenon. Such language plays into the hands of the real estate industry. Clearly it’s not complex to the well-organized Crown Heights Tenants Union. They protested recently out the front of 1045 Union Street because of the unfair and unsafe treatment of tenants by a landlord. Residents had gone three freezing nights without heat and hot water.
Some believe that there won’t be a fight by tenants this year. The same people believe the community will be flattened on this issue by a gold-plated steamroller—paid for by the real estate industry. I think they are wrong. While all these community groups are geographically separated throughout Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York City, other recent movements have shown the community can mobilize very quickly into a significant force.
Like the “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Black Lives Matter” movements, the push for tenants rights taps into tremendous anger over an injustice perpetrated by private actors (banks, racist cops) and legitimized by the government (the Obama bailout, the grand jury decisions).
Nevertheless the anti-gentrification movement needs to be even more aggressive than the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. While those triggered a political response, neither movement was as productive as it could have been if its members had a common set of goals. Representatives from the different community groups need to come together to develop a list of “must haves” from legislators that favor tenants. Because if there comes a point in June where these advocates and groups are seen as divided, you can be sure as the sun comes up tomorrow that the real-estate industry and their political friends will play off the divide and indecision. It’s been seen before in recent movements, from Black Lives Matter to the student protests in Hong Kong. There is far too much at stake for that.
This can be done. The leadership of the community groups I’ve seen are experienced and passionate. They have the fuel for the fire thanks to years of unjust and unequal treatment. The rent regulations fight in June may be what brings them together into a significant force.