Election Day is here and, depending on your perspective and persuasion, our country will be saved or doomed. Maybe both, maybe neither. On a personal note, I’m proud of playing a small part in a cycle that has seen the emergence of a progressive left as a growing electoral force.
In the spring, I started hearing about a young woman running for Congress in the Bronx, and it was a single tweet from her talking about housing as a right that hooked me. It was something I believed, but never thought would become an actual rallying cry in American politics.
Since then, over the last 6 months, I’ve knocked on countless doors across 4 of the 5 boroughs (sorry Staten Island) for Alex Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, and for many other progressive candidates that believe the same thing.
I’ve met amazing, committed activists of all ages and backgrounds that have come together to talk about important issues, promote great ideas, and elect amazing candidates. For a housing nerd like me, I’ve especially been inspired by the community of housing organizers that I’ve come to know.
There were a lot of important issues that got people fired up this cycle. However, universal rent control is one of the most exciting movements that has started to come into focus. It is an opportunity to radically change the political landscape in Albany, but has a long way to go, even if things go right on Election Day.
I wanted to make one final pitch to voters about what universal rent control means, why its so important, and why supporting the candidates who believe in it is so important. Here are 5 reasons to support universal rent control:
1. It’s the first step in breaking the rigged the political system
Everybody complains about how corrupt Albany is, but it really is, and real estate is the reason why. REBNY (The Real Estate Board of New York), one of the major political arms of big real estate developers, spends like crazy every election cycle on politicians from both parties and gets its members to spend even more.
It’s money well spent. It gets its members generous tax incentives, weak tenant protections, and a stable, predictable political landscape that favors developers. Then they take advantage of extreme gerrymandering, lax campaign finance laws, and voter suppression measures to keep their preferred candidates in power and to keep voters out of the process. (Many of the candidates they back also block other progressive issues in Albany.)
This means that renters, the homeless, small landlords, and low-income communities across the state are blocked from expressing meaningful political power. There are just enough politicians speaking for these groups to give the appearance of a fighting chance, but the supremacy of the status quo is undeniable.
This election cycle is challenging the status quo. During the Democratic primary in September, pro-tenant progressive candidates beat a slate of establishment Democrats, including 6 out of the 8 state senators of the now defunct Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).
These candidates (and even candidates from other parties) all ran on a platform that rejected real estate money and most embraced universal rent control. These candidates are pro-tenant, but as importantly they are pro-democracy. By taking rightful power from a tiny group of wealthy developers and giving it back to the broader population of New Yorkers, we can start to solve the deeper political crisis in our state that is fueling the housing crisis.
URC is the first and biggest opportunity to turn this momentum into law, just as our current rent regulation laws are set to expire in 2019.
2. It’s the only immediate way to slow down rents
Universal rent control will apply to every renter in New York state and is designed to block extreme rent increases, prevent unfair evictions, and eliminate perverse incentives to kick out tenants. This is the only way, right now, to protect tenants from increasing rent pressure. When half of all rentersare already burdened, help is needed fast.
URC will improve on the existing rent regulation protections in two critical ways. First, it will apply to all renters. Current laws apply to less than half of all renters in NYC and a tiny fraction outside of the city, so the benefits are not widely shared and understood. Second, it will remove the many loopholesthat allow landlords to raise rents in regulated units and to remove units from regulations altogether.
By closing loopholes and spreading protection to all renters, the housing market in New York will change dramatically. Every renter will gain meaningful protections against the type of stress and abuse that have become typical for too many.
It is a blunt tool for sure, and it must be part of other large reforms in land use policy, property tax law, and occupancy requirements, among others. But on its own, right now, it will help protect tenants from the onslaught of the housing crisis and show them that political change is possible if they remain united.
3. It’s the best way to stop the homelessness crisis from getting worse
There are a record 89,000 homeless New Yorkers across the state, 62,000 of them are in NYC. A large portion of them are families. Many of them are veterans. Lots of these adults are working. This is happening while our economy has been “booming” for ten years.
This is a moral failure. If that’s not enough for you, then it’s also a policy failure. The number one reason for the spike of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. People can’t afford to stay in their homes and can’t afford to move and/or secure new housing.
New York spends millions of dollars trying to fill the gap with shelters and supportive housing, but we should be working on keeping people in their homes to begin with. Eviction prevention is a proven method to improve outcomes for housing insecure individuals and is a substantially more cost effective policy for taxpayers.
URC includes the expansion of eviction protections currently underway in NYC like right-to-counsel and anti-harassment measures, but it can also include a streamlined system for short-term rental assistance before eviction proceedings start. Many of the existing rental assistance programs at the state level are difficult to navigate and apply to a narrow pool of applicants. Federal programs are even worse.
Simplifying and expanding these programs under a URC platform will be a net benefit for these New Yorkers and for the state. Ending homelessness is a choice and one that we can do with a relatively small operational lift.
4. It will spur competition and innovation in housing construction
URC is a drastic intervention in the housing market and flies in the face of every 101 econ class lesson, but it is also necessary and justified because the housing market in New York, and especially NYC, has always been broken. It might be counterintuitive, but URC can actually fix this.
In a classic market simulation, perfect competition between rational actors creates an equilibrium between supply and demand cancelling out profits. No capitalist actually wants that and, historically, capitalists have worked very hard to prevent that from happening. Our current form of late capitalism has perfected this.
This is especially true in the housing market. Simply put, the market doesn’t build enough quality affordable housing because it isn’t interested in doing so. It only does so with expensive public subsidies. Every activist agrees that we need a greater supply of housing, but our reliance on this method has produced few affordable units relative to need at truly astronomical per unit costs. The only winners here are developers.
As much as developers complain about it, the cost and complexity of building in NYC benefits them because it prevents new developers (big or small) from entering and competing. A restricted supply and complex regulatory landscape raises profits and limits competition, leaving a small, wealthy community with a lot of power and incentive to maintain the status quo, which is what REBNY does well.
This hardly makes for a healthy market. Tenants don’t have corresponding market power because they don’t have the power to “vote with their feet” to change this status quo. Without a “pure” market (never gonna happen) to even the playing field for tenants, the argument for URC becomes obvious.
URC would remove the worst predatory actors from the market by restricting rents, but if it includes complimentary reforms that create more competition, (things like reforming occupancy laws, zoning restrictions, property tax law, but there are many ideas to pull from) it could spur a renaissance in construction practices and productivity that have been slow to materialize under the current status quo.
We need to encourage more innovation and competition within the development community to add housing more responsive to the public’s changing needs. This includes more use-specific options for seniors, special needs individuals, families, and young singles, as well as incorporating more sustainable construction and energy-use methods.
URC is a rejection of the current structure of the housing market, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a vehicle for innovation. By establishing Housing for All as the goal of the housing market, URC is challenging who gets to compete and what ideas get to compete.
5. It will stop displacement and encourage local ownership
The post-recession emergence of foreign and institutional investors at the high-end and the growth of house flipping platforms at the low-end have created unprecedented competition for real estate in many corners of the state. These forces have particularly targeted low-income communities of color, triggering levels of displacement that we are only just starting to understand.
It’s no surprise that large scale investors have turned to single-family properties and small multi-family portfolios in cities like NYC. They are safe, highly privileged assets in American tax law and are the benefactor of the larger trend of people preferring to live in urban environments. High debt levels and stagnant wages have further increased the demand of rental housing for younger and older Americans. The prospect of weakening already leaky rent regulation laws only creates more interest in these buildings.
URC will obviously change the calculation on rising rents. This will in turn have a potential impact on the attractiveness of housing as an investment asset overall. Removing the speculative value of housing will lower the costs not only for renters, but for local landlords and community groups to take on ownership.
If URC gets passed, making it easier for these types of local actors to own the land and buildings in their community will prevent displacement and retain prosperity within these communities. The same coalition could support alternative equity models like community land trusts to further empower community-led ownership.
The fight is just beginning
I am too burned from 2016 to want to hear, let alone, make predictions about Election Day. But at the local level in New York, there is a real chance that progressive change can take hold in Albany after the election. If the Senate flips, there is a credible chance to enact universal rent control.
But the fight will be brutal. REBNY, RSA, and high-influence developers were clearly caught off guard by the rebellion in the primaries, but they have considerable structural advantages in Albany. Governor Cuomo will be a particularly vexing wild card.
Whatever happens on Election Day (I may update this as needed) I hope that voters, long-time or first-time, continue to stay involved with other activist groups. The coalition for universal rent control is still in its early stages, but the housing rights and tenants rights communities have been around for a long time. Channeling the experience of these groups with the energy of newly engaged local voters could produce some truly remarkable change in 2019. Here’s hoping.