“As Gov. Kathy Hochul is set to deliver the speech that could define her first full term, she has an opportunity to set a path of real progress on housing. But she will have to break the patterns of past leadership—and her own first year in office.”
When we asked the last governor for housing reforms, he had us arrested.
In June of 2019, I joined hundreds of advocates for a sit-in outside then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office—an act of civil disobedience in support of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which would ultimately be the largest advancement for tenant rights in decades.
That monumental achievement, fueled by a coalition of advocates and elected officials from all across the state, provided vital security and relief for tenants. But the reluctance of past city and state leaders to embrace—in some cases, their efforts to actively oppose—true housing justice have left New York mired in a housing and homelessness crisis that sees shelters full and failing, rents rising to historic highs, conditions deteriorating, and ownership entirely out of reach for many New Yorkers. Moving forward requires leadership that recognizes the scope of this failure and is willing to make housing New Yorkers a true top priority, with a truly bold agenda.
As Gov. Kathy Hochul is set to deliver the speech that could define her first full term, she has an opportunity to set a path of real progress on housing. But she will have to break the patterns of past leadership—and her own first year in office.
In her first State of the State, the governor promised 100,000 units of nominally affordable housing across the state. As I said at the time, that number would not even come close to meeting the needs here in the five boroughs, much less statewide, and seemed to show a lack of understanding or urgency related to the housing crisis. Since then, she has increased that target to 800,000 new units, and as Mayor Eric Adams has agreed, the majority of those units will be in the city—though the affordability targets remain unclear. In this year’s blueprints, the governor and mayor must each support strategies that truly meet the scope and urgency of this housing crisis.
As I pushed for while running statewide, we need an increased goal of 1,000,000 affordable housing built and preserved—that campaign is over, but the housing crisis and need for these units are not. Just as important as the target number of units, though, is making these homes income-targeted. If steps are going to be taken by the government to encourage responsible development, whether through subsidizing or streamlining, that support should only come in exchange for deeply affordable housing, not market-rate. Everything is “affordable” to someone, and too often we have seen that label applied to housing entirely unaffordable to the current residents of a community, which only spurs gentrification and displacement while neither meeting the housing crisis in a neighborhood nor providing the supply that could lower costs city and statewide.
Creating these units is vital—at the same time, it’s just as important that we ensure New Yorkers can stay in these homes, both through foreclosure prevention and eviction protections. A tide of evictions continues even as waves of the pandemic repeatedly rise, and tenants lack a critical safeguard cast aside by Governors Cuomo and Hochul alike—Good Cause Eviction protections.
Good Cause Eviction legislation—one piece of the 2019 package which did not pass—would give renters living in non-rent-stabilized units the right to a lease renewal, and prevent landlords from kicking tenants out without a valid reason. Additionally, it would help prevent the kind of massive rent increases we have seen in the city over the last year.
Landlords have long tried to kick out tenants in an effort to raise prices—but in recent months and years we have seen that if they are unable to gouge new tenants for new profits, they often prefer to leave units vacant, allowing the housing crisis to deepen and conditions in buildings to deteriorate. When my office released our Worst Landlord Watchlist last month, we toured buildings all-but abandoned by their owners, left to disrepair as tenants themselves worked to maintain their buildings.
We need to pass city legislation to hold these landlords accountable, including my Worst Landlord Accountability Act, but we also need to give tenants themselves the chance to take ownership of their homes. This is the year to enact the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act on a state level, granting tenants priority purchasing power if their buildings are put up for sale. The Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, on the city level, can also aid in this area by helping nonprofits to acquire buildings and collaborate with tenants through community land trusts.
This question of ownership is crucial, and as landlords and corporations continue to place profits over people and even their own properties, it is time to move to create alternatives to this model. Housing owned by communities of tenants, rather than corporations, is the path forward. While investing to reverse decades of decline in New York’s public housing, the state and city should be making efforts to acquire, preserve, and develop properties that can be owned and managed through community land trusts, occupied by tenants across the income spectrum.
Enacting all of this means rejecting those in real estate who stand as power players and powerful donors—one area where the governor is at best following, if not going further in the wrong direction than, her predecessor. The answers to New York’s housing and homelessness crisis do not come in private fundraisers and are not fueled by big checks—they come from the tenants and would-be owners struggling to find and remain in their homes. In this year’s State of the State, I hope to see a governor ready to listen to those voices, not provide lip service in service of the status quo.
I’m happy to return to the governor’s door this year, and I know tenants across the city and state would join, in an effort to convene and collaborate on a housing agenda as bold in New York’s history as it is basic to New Yorkers’ needs. But having been here before, heard promises before, I’m left to wonder—would our voices be heard through the glass, would our proposals be let inside?
Jumaane Williams is the public advocate for the city of New York.