There are a few New Yorkers whose knowledge of the city’s housing policies, as well as the social movements that shaped them, could be accurately described as “encyclopedic.” And there are a few people who know all of its political players – in both the legislative chambers and the informal networks of power – and understand what makes them tick: who “was in the room where it happened,” their governing coalitions, their behind-the-scenes partners, their personalities, and their self-interests.
There are a few people who have the research skills to answer just about any question you might have about the dynamics of housing in this city – rents, development patterns, taxation, zoning, and finance – and the political acumen to know what kind of research will be most useful to social movements fighting to undo deep structural inequalities. And there are a few people who are generous, sensitive, curious, and committed enough to make themselves available to such inquiries from tenants, organizers, reporters, academics, and political staffers from across the city, and beyond.
There are a few people who can cite chapter and verse in both classic and obscure texts of radical political economy, as well as the latest developments in the fields of political science and urban studies. And there are a few people who can speak comfortably and cogently on the same subject to rooms full of tenants, politicians,rent board members, lawyers, or academics.
As far as we know, there was only one person in the world who could do all those things, and on Saturday, April 4th he perished from COVID-19, as have more than 4,260 of his New York City neighbors so far.
Tom Waters was best known as a Housing Policy Analyst at the Community Service society, a job at which he excelled and a perch from which he served as an invaluable resource to the New York City housing movement. He was also long-serving board member of Tenants & Neighbors, where we met him as organizers; a PhD candidate in political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; a loving partner to Hilary Callahan and father to Daniel Watahan; and a dear friend to us and countless others.
Tom was born a New Yorker in 1963, in Far Rockaway, Queens. His family soon moved from Long Island to Massachusetts, and he then attended Yale and moved immediately afterward to join his girlfriend in Brooklyn. Moving next to Madison, Wisconsin, he participated in anti-war activism and community journalism at WORT and The Insurgent. After his next move to Knoxville, Tennessee, his community organizing career began. He helped poor people’s campaigns and opposed privatization of a University Hospital before landing back in New York City, in The Bronx, and beginning his 20 year commitment to the city’s tenant movement.
Tom joined the staff of Tenants & Neighbors as a fundraiser, but he insisted that any development work he did be paired with organizing. He made a tremendous impact on the organization and went on to serve as an interim Executive Director and a long-term board member. He worked through some tough years for the New York City housing movement – years of gentrificationand luxury development, conservative rule, rent-law retrenchment, and, at times, roiling enmity among organizations struggling to survive under trying circumstances. Despite defeats, he persisted, insisting that the movement fight smartly and strategically with every resource it had, and that its leaders maintain a political horizon that stretched far beyond the dim realm of the immediately possible. Over many drinks and strategy sessions, Tom was consistent in his belief that we could, and would win, even when the odds seemed stacked against us. Ultimately, he was able to see the fruits of his and others’ long-term labor through the historic 2019 rent laws, a victory that was enabled in part by his efforts.
In 2005, Tom began working at the Community Service Society, where his range of research subjects included: the dynamics of rent regulation, with an emphasis on immigrant communities; real estate taxation, and especially the inequities of the 421-a and J-51 tax breaks; the role of private equity in the loss of affordable housing; Mitchell-Lama housing, and the possibilities for anew Mitchell-Lama program; homelessness and its prevention; neighborhood dynamics of zoning and housing production; the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ housing plans (which, he noted, represented a significant shift leftward from previous candidates’ plans); and most recently, in a posthumous paper co-authored with Oksana Mironova, a report that discusses how COVID-19 exacerbates the housing crisis and the path toward housing justice in a time of plague. In addition to this research, Tom also studied New York City housing in an academic setting, producing papers on the politics of community boards, organizing the CUNY Graduate Center’s Civil Society Workshop, and working toward a dissertation titled “Neighborhoods and Housing Policy in New York City from Lindsay to Bloomberg.” He was a radical with a commitment to nuance and precision, and a vision to scale up both the movement’s research and organizing agendas.
Part of what made Tom unique as a housing researcher was his collaborative and supportive nature. Tom would ask organizers and tenants what kind of research would be useful to them, rather than impose his own interests on the movement. He talked daily with all the directors of Tenants & Neighbors, as well as many of its organizers and those of several other housing groups. He was a particular resource to young organizers and researchers, who shot questions at him daily. He was always available to tenants, meeting in basement community rooms and for coffee after rallies and protests. He was also a major supporter and leader in the Barnard Contingent Faculty union (UAW 2110), where he fought alongside fellow adjuncts and graduate students for a fair contract and better working conditions.
As organizers and researchers, Tom talked us through our burning questions and offered in response not just data but political analysis. He believed in and supported women’s leadership in the tenant movement and acted with care and humility to support rather than supplant them. He was a steward to Tenants & Neighbors; he cared deeply for the organization and served as our moral and political compass. In difficult times, he joked about how much worse our budget could be, and he mourned with us the all-too-frequent deaths of tenants in our movement – a clear consequence of the structural inequalities he battled against.
We will miss Tom as a movement researcher, but also as a friend. We will miss his funny smile, his generosity, his brilliance, his kindness, his humor, his commitment, and his love for the Bronx, for his Episcopal church, for books, for operas and obscure bands, for picket lines, and for parties. We are left with memories.
Katie remembers the first time she met Tom. They were riding a bus with a Tenants & Neighbors member named Rina Garst. Tom asked what her full name was, and she replied “Voltairine.” Tom then knew to ask the follow-up question, “Are you by any chance named after Voltairine de Cleyre?”, the late 19th/ early 20th century anarcha-feminist. “Yes!” she replied. “I was supposed to be named Emma, but my mom was fighting with Emma Goldman at the time.” His deep knowledge, curiosity, charm, and openness were on full display, and would never abate.
Sam remembers a particularly dire moment during his time at Tenants & Neighbors, when Tom sat him and his fellow organizers down for a lesson in political theory. “Real estate is to New York as oil is Texas,” he told them, before setting off on a plain-spoken but theoretically rich lecture on the dynamics of the New York State legislature. In so doing, he showed us that our problems were bigger than ourselves, and that people had been struggling over the contradictions we were facing for a very long time. He demonstrated that there was power in the capacity to see the world clearly; or, in one of his favorite quotations (from Trotsky), the ability “to face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives.”
There were two days in the past calendar year when everyone in the tenant movement cried on the phone with each other in disbelief: once in joy when we won the 2019 rent reforms; and now in sadness as we mourn the loss of a giant in our field. New York is better because Tom devoted his life to making its neighborhoods more equitable and its housing system more just. He pushed us to build a movement that he hoped could – to continue with Trotsky – “swim against the stream. The approaching historical wave will raise it on its crest.”
Let us continue to do so in his name, and in the wake of the pandemic that claimed him. Tom’s spirit will endure as long as we keep fighting.
Katie Goldstein is a Senior National Organizer at the Center for Popular Democracy and the former Executive Director of Tenants & Neighbors. Samuel Stein is the author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State and a former organizer and board member at Tenants & Neighbors.
Tom Waters’s Body of Work
Compiled by Oksana Mironova and Samuel Stein
Tom Waters’s work spanned the trajectory of the city’s housing landscape over the past 20 years. His research and writing both described and shaped organizing and policy in New York City and beyond. Here are some highlights:
Rent regulation: Throughout his career, Tom documented the havoc that rent law retrenchment wreaked on New York’s housing affordability, and the need for legislative action to expand the program to cover more geographies and building typologies. His research was crucial in both justifying the need for and crafting the possible parameters of the historic 2019 rent stabilization and rent control reforms.
Landlord tax breaks: Tom’s research demonstrated just how disproportionately the benefits of state-level housing tax breaks had accrued to owners over tenants, and why the political system produced such persistently inequitable outcomes. While he also analyzed the landlord tax break known as “J-51”, his primary focus was the massive “4-21a” (now rebranded as “Affordable Housing New York”). He argued that New York should scrap these giveaways altogether and invest instead in genuinely affordable social housing.
Subsidized housing loss and preservation: In the early aughts, Tom developed a database to track the loss of HUD-assisted and Mitchell Lama rental housing in New York City. Reporting on the losses annually during the build-up to the financial crisis and shortly thereafter, Tom’s work helped identify the impact of predatory equity on expiring subsidized housing, thus informing organizing strategies and policy responses.
Community boards: Tom was interested in addressing both the potential and the perils of Community Boards as ultra-loca deliberative bodies. He leveraged his knowledge of political theory and sociology to explain, both in opinion pieces and academic papers, the mismatch between the tasks boards are dealt and the resources at their disposal. He was thus able to identify some of the reasons people of opposing political perspectives find fault with both the current functioning of Community Boards and the underwhelming remedies offered in recent charter reform proposals.
Data explainers: Researchers and organizers alike looked to Tom for regular digests chronicling the latest data on housing costs, wages, development patterns, and more. His summaries of Housing and Vacancy Survey and American Community Survey results helped turn abstract and overwhelming datasets into understandable and applicable narratives and maps.
Neighborhood change: Tom’s research, both at CSS and in his scholarly work, focused on arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the forces that drive neighborhood change. He sought to link his quantitative research of rising rents in gentrifying neighborhoods to the struggle for stronger rent regulation and better land use policy.
Homelessness: Over the past few years, Tom worked closely with the state’s homelessness advocacy groups to make a case for policy mechanisms that would permanently house unsheltered New Yorkers. In particular, Tom focused on advocacy for a state rental assistance program, which would create a permanent funding stream for the operations of housing affordable to extremely low-income households.
Political commentary: Tom developed analysis and commentary to help shape the housing plans of incoming city, state, and federal administrations. A 2014 report described housing policies that should be adopted by the incoming de Blasio administration, including directing city resources toward housing the lowest income New Yorkers and ensuring that the NYC Rent Guidelines Board consider tenants’ economic conditions. In 2020, Tom published and regularly updated a guide to Democratic presidential candidates’ detailed housing plans, the depth of which signaled an emerging consensus in the Democratic Party that housing and homelessness should be top priority issues.
Housing futures: Tom envisioned a more equitable housing future for New York, with a significantly expanded decommodified housing sector. In 2015, he advocated for a revived Mitchell-Lama program, which would provide benefits to households with a wide range of incomes. In 2020, he wrote about the existing social housing landscape in New York, and the possibility for its expansion statewide and beyond. Ideally, the model would incorporate three main goals: insulating housing from market forces, promoting social equality, and enabling residents to exercise democratic control over their housing.