housing justice for all

Report Confirms Obvious: Rent Control Works

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Now that the new legislative session has opened in Albany, the Housing Justice for All campaign has ratcheted up its fight for Universal Rent Control, a platform of bills that strengthen and expand tenants’ rights across the state. Even with united Democratic control for the first time in decades, there are a lot of structural obstacles in place that could derail the campaign over the next few months.

Half of all renters in New York City and the vast majority in the state don’t have any protections and aren’t typically activated in the fight for tenants’ rights. The real estate industry has millions of dollars to spend on lobbying and media influencing. And many legislators, just like the average person, have a lot of outdated misconceptions about rent control.

Changing the popular narrative of rent control is one of the most important, and hardest, challenges facing the Housing Justice for All campaign for Universal Rent Control. We only need to look to California, where the real estate lobby spent $80 million exploiting the same misconceptions to help defeat a rent control initiative called Prop 10.

This week, help came in a big way from Oksana Mironov of Community Service Society of New York who published a timely report on rent control in New York City that should help every activist fighting for Universal Rent Control frame their arguments for the general public.

It’s no secret that housing policy is a vast and confusing assortment of policies, agencies, acronyms, and formulas that scares off most people. Rent control (broadly used here to incorporate all rent regulations) is one of the most confusing aspects of this larger very confusing space.

That makes it hard to step back and understand the bigger picture of rent control, which is really quite simple and positive. This report shows why that is the case. It makes three important points that deserve quick focus:

Rent Control is the best affordable housing policy

As the report points out, there is an inherent power imbalance between landlords and tenants. Landlords will always have more information, more control, more political access, and more money than a tenant, particularly in a stressed market (which NYC has always been and most cities have become). The marxist critique would go further and highlight the absurdity of tenants providing the capital that gives the landlord power over them.

Rent control is the best way to offset this dynamic by securing real protections and power for tenants. One of the biggest achievements of the report is how clearly it explains how rent regulations do this and why it matters. Put simply, it shows that rent control is the best affordable housing policy we have (aside from expanding public housing).

Rent control is a legal structure that helps cities and towns stay affordable without massive direct public subsidies. They restrict a landlord’s ability to raise rents, they guarantee a tenant’s right to a lease renewal, and they provide legal resources to combat abusive behavior. These tools together give tenants the power to negotiate with a landlord that they simply don’t have when they can’t easily move to a cheaper or better apartment or fear getting kicked out.

It also has a larger impact on the health of a city. Rent control provides tenants and communities of color long-term protections against displacement in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. It offers more housing security for seniors, lower-income workers, and formerly homeless families than market rate housing. It also scares off speculators like private equity firms that raise property values, which gives non-profits, community land trusts, and other local ownership models the opportunity to own buildings.

The report also goes through a brief but widely unknown history of rent control laws in the US and in New York particularly, showing how widespread it used to be and why it was so necessary as a policy. It’s worth reading, but the gist is simple: we’ve always been in a housing crisis because housing doesn’t function like a normal market.

If the market was even somewhat designed to incentivize affordable housing, we’d have more affordable housing. But it isn’t and we don’t and never will by relying on it. Our solution now is to give billions of public dollars to private developers to subsidize “affordable housing units” that aren’t affordable, aren’t permanent, and aren’t built enough.

The report makes the overwhelming argument that rent control is a much sounder policy for private affordable housing policy.

Current laws suck, Universal Rent Control is the fix

Even though rent control works, it doesn’t take a housing nerd to see that current laws…don’t. They don’t “work” in a number of ways that the report covers well. It also shows how Universal Rent Control fixes them.

First, rent control doesn’t protect enough tenants. Of 8 million renters in New York state, only 2.5 million have any type of protections. The vast majority of those folks live in NYC, but still less than half of all rental units are regulated. That doesn’t leave a lot of tenants protected or interested in fighting for them.

Second, the current laws basically undermine the entire point of rent control. This is largely because the real estate lobby has effectively written these laws from the beginning. Their biggest problem is called vacancy decontrol, which allows units to exit the system and return to market rate when they reach $2733. This gives landlords a powerful motive to find ways to raise rents to that threshold. They have means through a series of loopholes that allow landlords to raise rents on existing tenants or in between leases.

Throw in the fact that oversight is flimsy at the state and city level (one issue that URC needs to address better) and you’re left with a system that does not protect tenants as much as it suggests it would. Since 1994, almost 300,000 units have been deregulated. That offsets all of the units protected under Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan.

The problem isn’t rent control as a concept, it’s rent control that is designed to fail slowly. Given this analysis, it’s no surprise that the report endorses the full platform of Universal Rent Control because it fixes these problems (ending vacancy decontrol, eliminating every loophole, expanding legal rights.) Most importantly, URC extends new protections to all renters, including market rate tenants, across the state.

Rent control critics are wrong either on purpose or by accident

The final part of the report is the most important for housing activists because it debunks the lazy talking points against rent control. These will absolutely be used by the real estate lobby and will likely be repeated uncritically by the media. Much like the emerging debate over marginal tax rates, this is either because critics don’t actually understand how housing works or they are operating in bad faith.

I encourage you to read the full section, but I’ll highlight one of the most important myths debunked in the report: rent control limits the supply of new construction, which raises rents for everybody.

Ignore for a moment that new construction isn’t even covered under rent regulations (unless they receive tax subsidies) and focus on the logic. If rent control magically vanished, would rents go down and would construction boom?

Well, no. We can look at examples like Cambridge, MA, where rent control vanished in 1994. Property values went up dramatically, and rents doubled in just three years. But there was and remains no construction boom that lowered rents. Rents continue to rise and displacement of low-income residents has increased, especially over the last five years, sparking housing protests from the Movement for Black Lives.

Rents are going up in Cambridge and plenty of other places without rent control and construction isn’t keeping pace. So what is driving that? Scarcity of land, speculation, and zoning restrictions. Even without rent control, these factors still exist. You can debate solutions to those problems, but rent control doesn’t impact them and it’s absurd to suggest that it does.

The only obvious way to protect tenants right now is capping rents. The only way to make it an effective policy is to have strong protections that reach all tenants.

Now that Governor Cuomo has announced his intention to address “aggressive rent regulations reforms” during the budget process over the next few months, it is crunch time to make the case for strengthening and expanding rent protections. There are many obstacles ahead, including the governor. Every member of Housing Justice for All and every housing activist should read and share this report to make sure people know why we must pass Universal Rent Control.

Progressive Housing Priorities for 2019: Go Big or Go Home

Hike wages, not rent

Hike wages, not rent

For many housing activists in New York, 2018 felt like the beginning of something big. The relentless scale of the affordable housing crisis finally reached a tipping point with the public. Hundreds of community groups on the ground around the state mobilized around this new energy and the result was stunning. The maturation of a truly state-wide tenant coalition in Housing Justice for All, the emergence of universal rent control as a viable policy platform, and the electoral victory of a new class of anti-real estate progressives have shaken up the political landscape in the state for the first time in generations.

The task now is how to ensure that we translate the organizing energy of 2018 into legislative victories in 2019 — and beyond. The first and most obvious priority will be passing the package of bills that encompass universal rent control before the rent laws expire in June. The peculiar mechanics of power in Albany make this a challenging task even with unified Democratic control, but there is undoubtably a large energized base of activists and groups committed to the fight.

There is a lot of work to be done, but I want to step back as the New Year starts and take a wider view of how housing activists should think about URC and its relationship to other issues in the progressive movement. This has implications for how we proceed with the URC battle in Albany over the next few months, but it matters for all progressive issues over the long run.

Where we’re falling short

Many other housing activists have pointed out that as much success as we’ve had with building a broad housing movement in 2018, we still experienced a lot of challenges around uniting different groups, agendas, and ideas within “housing”.

We also struggled to bring in obvious potential allies like young market-rate tenants, construction labor, and even small working-class landlords. We need to understand why these challenges exist, because we need these groups to sustain progressive victories.

The lack of inroads to some groups is probably in part due to the complexity of housing policy in general (and the difficulty of getting media to talk about it, before the election at least). Some is due to the perception that rent control won’t help market-rate tenants, or that it will slow down development and cost construction jobs. I’ve covered all of these issues in various blogs last year and I think we have some good ideas to address them.

But I’ve had a nagging sense (I don’t have any data to be clear) that some people tune out because they don’t see how universal rent control fits into a larger effort to reform our society. They might think of it as a “one-off” issue rather than part of a larger effort.

What’s the Big Idea?

That’s a failure on our part. We should be able to reach these types of folks with the right message — if we can show how our housing goals are part of a single unifying theory of progressive reform in New York.

What is that unifying theory? I read the same writers and thinkers as everyone else on this and I’m eager to hear what others think. But I believe, certainly as many others do, that the broad progressive theory to build a just society means fulfilling our individual roles as citizens before consumers, reestablishing democratic control rather than market control over our economy and politics, and investing in the public good over private profit. Pursuing policies around these broad goals are the best and most legitimate way to address the dual crises of wealth inequality and climate change.

Feel free to disagree with that assessment or add/subtract to it. The progressive movement is full of important discussions about the role of personal and group identity in shaping our priorities (I think outsiders give these discussions a bad rap for the most part) and the housing movement is no different. The point is, whatever the movement defines or has defined as its central theory, we need to be clear and consistent with how we want our society organized and why we think that offers a more perfect future for America. I’m not sure we’re doing enough of that, certainly not in the URC fight.

It’s hard to convey this on signs and buttons during actions, so it is important that we talk about the organizing theory in other places and on other platforms where we can be more in-depth. Whether its more op-eds or (definitely) more video or attending more local meetings, we need more people to hear that message directly. Groups like the DSANew York Communities for Change, and Make the Road Action are working on this already, so helping these organizations expand their efforts should be a big focus for housing progressives.

Along those lines, here are three Big Priorities that the progressive housing movement should work hard on as we ramp up the URC fight in the coming months. If we keep these ideas in mind as we talk to other folks in housing and to anyone in general as we go, we should be able to translate the energy of this coalition into a larger transformative progressive movement.

1. Unite all housing issues under Housing as a Right

Mayor de Blasio’s recent year-end review of his housing policy is a good symbol of the problem we face. He continues to view affordable housing, public housing, and homelessness as three separate issues. He’s not alone. Housing policy and advocacy has always been a balkanized mess with groups often competing for very limited funding and attention.

There are groups that should seemingly be aligned because they all work on low-income housing issues that aren’t in reality because they have deep divisions over things like prioritizing homeownership over renting. Other examples include homelessness advocates sparing with public housing advocates over prioritizing available NYCHA units. Affordable housing advocates spar about definitions of affordable and whether to prioritize for-profit, not-for-profit, or public development. The list goes on.

Some of these divisions are natural and healthy because housing is a vast policy landscape that has multiple potential outcomes of value. But many of them are the unhealthy result of a zero-sum funding game dictated by the narrow ideology of prioritizing the private market above all else.

To be clear, that’s because New York housing policy is not about how we provide adequate affordable housing, it’s about how to provide adequate funding to the private market to build more affordable housing then they would otherwise. (Developers give more money to campaigns than low-income renters after all.)

That has obviously worked — because it is providing billions of dollars to private developers, but it has not worked as a housing policy. (The term “affordable housing” is increasingly meaningless because of this too.) That’s what happens when the housing world is as divided as it currently is.

This dynamic must change. It starts by making housing a right the central goal of all housing groups.

The current policy landscape is narrow and static, which blocks out ideas and voices that we need to hear. To truly expand policy thinking on housing, the housing world must become united around a single political goal of providing affordable, adequate, and available housing to all residents of New York.

By necessity, such a vast goal will need to draw from all corners of the political spectrum. Homeownership and rental options must be expanded. Public housing and private development must be encouraged equally. Land-use and building codes must be reimagined. All ideas must be on the table.

This won’t magically cure real policy disagreements or funding problems, but it will break the political status quo, which has paralyzed both discussions. Thinking about affordable housing, supportive housing, public housing, and homelessness as separate issues has trapped many dedicated housing groups, some well-meaning non profit developers, and a few elected leaders in a cage match over dwindling funds and ideas.

Housing as a right as a political goal will encourage new voices, new ideas, and new alliances. The Housing Justice for All coalition has done a remarkable job of building a wide coalition because it has committed to this goal already, but we need to reach out to other groups like NYCHA residents, homelessness groups, low-income homeownership groups, small landlords, market-rate tenants, and construction trade groups to form a single united housing as a right movement.

There are many knowledgable and creative housing groups that could be useful parts of the coalition that are fence-sitting because of reasonable political calculations around funding and relationships. Change the politics, and those calculations change. This is the kind of bold reset that the affordable housing crisis is demanding of our politics and we have the opportunity to seize it this year — if we act boldly.

2. Embrace progressive urbanism

I studied Urban Planning in grad school because I believe the city is humanity’s best idea. Humans are social, collaborative, and competitive — concentrating them in one place brings out the best of those qualities in us and drives progressive as a civilization. — if we manage it well. Progressive urbanism offers that chance.

Cities also best represent the unique possibilities of the American character. You can find community. You can find opportunity. You can find purpose. That’s why they are magnets to immigrants, entrepreneurs, artists, and exiles.

Contrary to what others say, cities are where the real America exists and where its future lies. That future is diverse, dense, and digital. America is already an urban country and will only grow more so in the 21st century.

But if 21st century America is going to work, we need to make its cities work. And they aren’t working right now. Communities are under fire. Opportunity is out of reach. Purpose is illusive. That’s especially true in NYC, which is one of the most economically and racially stratified cities in North America.

The problem is America’s politics are anti-urban. The Constitution doesn’t recognize cities. The Electoral College undervalues them. The federal government has favored (and subsidized) the rural and suburban parts of the country for most of the 20th century at the expense of them.

The racist anti-urban ideology baked into 20th century American politics is a large reason for the inequality crisis and climate crisis shaking our country apart, but cities don’t have the political power to fix it.

It’s time for the politics to catch up. A progressive urbanist agenda must be the core of 21st American politics. Housing progressives must argue that living in cities is how we live well together and how we best solve the problems facing our country and planet. We must explain why the advantages of urban life — the diverse, dense, and digital I mentioned earlier — are built-in ways to address inequality and climate change quickly and sustainably.

The housing movement must be a foundational partner in building the popular movement to reform our political system around cities. That means fighting for things as big as structural changes in the US Senate and House or changing housing and transportation policy at the federal level. And it means fighting for smaller immediate things like making sure the 2020 Censuscounts urban populations accurately and without racial animus baked in.

Cities are where the country is already moving, literally, and where the political future lies. Recognizing this and empowering cities will create thousands of democratic laboratories designed to fight inequality and climate change from the bottom up.

But only if they are midwifed with progressive values. Guaranteed affordable housing is the lynchpin of a larger set of issues that include improving wages and labor rights, recommitting to public education, creating universal healthcare, deconstructing systemic racism, and pursuing environmental justice and sustainability, among many others.

Progressive urbanism fits well into any potential organizing theory of progressive principles. It has to be a core tenant of the housing movement and it has to be the core message to bring in other non-housing groups to the cause.

3. Organize workers and consumers against late capitalism

It’s no coincidence that housing activists fighting for URC are also involved in the Anti-Amazon HQ2 protests in NYC. They are the same fight in the end. To really end the housing crisis, we must tackle the crisis of late capitalism that Amazon represents.

Capitalism has stopped working the way Americans have been raised to imagine it. Only the most ideologically blinded and deeply compromised partisans can look at the state of our economy and pretend otherwise. Most industries, especially finance, energy, telecoms, and pharmaceuticals have concentrated around a few dominant players who control their regulatory regimes at the expense of employees and consumers.

On top of this, the tech boom, despite the (now cresting) fascination with startups, has led to an unprecedented concentration of economic and cultural power in a few firms, industries, and geographies.

This has massive implications for the health of our economy and society, which we’ve only starting to reckon with properly. Getting cheap crap as consumers should not outweigh the cost to us as employees and citizens.

That tradeoff has been toxic. American entrepreneurship has plummeted. Wages for the top earners have exploded while wages for the vast majority of workers have stagnated — despite nine years of economic growth. Debts of any kind are skyrocketing to fill the gap. The chance to enter the middle class has all but vanished for many while the chance to remain there is diminishing for a huge swath of the country. This is late capitalism.

The commodification of housing is just another byproduct of late capitalism’s unchallenged thrust towards commodifying every aspect of our lives that undermines our civic and ecological lives. That is what is driving the rise of rents, displacement, and eviction. It explains part of the increase in climate disasters and is certainly a major factor in the failure to respond to them.

In New York at least, URC has a legitimate shot at clawing back democratic power over housing policy from the real estate industry for the first time in generations. But it is not enough to stop there. We must crawl back democratic control of the economy overall. URC should be the beginning of the larger movement to do so.

That means the housing movement must align with worker movements and progressive elected officials in their efforts to break up monopolies and oligarchies in every industry, but particularly in tech and finance.

This is already happening in NYC with the Anti-Amazon protests and other equally important movements like the protest over the redevelopment of Two Bridges (a major action is planned for MLK Day.)

Solidarity is the cornerstone of the housing movement, but we need that message to get out to the general public and to other potential allies: Passing universal rent control will not be enough to solve inequality. Because of that, even if we do pass URC, the coalition that made it possible won’t be going anywhere.

In the early 20th century, when the progressive movement first emerged, corporate power and capitalism itself were contested in the market place of ideas in America. Even Republicans like President Roosevelt warned against their threat to democracy.

That battle came to a head during the Great Depression when the other President Roosevelt famously said his New Deal was an attempt to save capitalism from itself. For a time, for America as a whole, it did that. The last 40 years have unravelled it.

It’s clear that we need a massive, New Deal-level reboot in this country. That doesn’t just mean a Green New Deal. And it doesn’t just mean housing as a right. It means rebooting every corner of our politics and our economy. As housing progressives fight for universal rent control in New York, we must step up and make sure people know that’s what we’re all fighting for.

What the Fight for Universal Rent Control in New York Can Learn from Prop 10’s Defeat in California (Via Shelterforce)

We’ll find out soon (homeBody)

We’ll find out soon (homeBody)

This article was originally published in Shelterforce

Voters in New York have spoken, and they want relief from the affordable housing crisis. Last week, they handed control of state government over completely to Democrats, most of who ran on progressive, pro-tenant platforms. Particularly in the state senate, which flipped for the first time in years, many first-time candidates beat pro-developer incumbents by rejecting real estate money and instead embracing the call for universal rent control.

This doesn’t mean that voters will get relief, however. With current rent regulation laws set to expire early next year, voters have set up an unprecedented fight between progressive housing groups and real estate interests. It will be a brutal fight. For proof of this, housing advocates in New York need only to look at California.

National real estate groups spent $80 million successfully defeating a rent control ballot initiative known as Prop 10.  These groups, as well as powerful local groups like the Real Estate Board of New York and Rent Stabilization Association, won’t blink at spending lots of money to fight universal rent control in New York. (One of the biggest is Blackstone, which owns Stuyvesant Town in the East Village where I live.)

California and New York have extremely different political contexts, so making direct comparisons has limited value. However, there are several important lessons that New York housing advocates can take away from Prop 10’s defeat.

  1. Define Universal Rent Control clearly

Prop 10 didn’t stand a chance as a ballot initiative, partly because of the money aligned against it, but equally because it was confusing. It was not a “Yes/No” vote on rent control. The language of the proposal was about repealing the state’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act that prevented local cities or towns from enacting any kind of new residential rent control.  

That left a lot undefined for voters. They were asked to vote on repealing something—and many did not have a specific sense of what repealing it would mean for their city or town, or for them personally as renters or homeowners. Even with millions of dollars from tenant groups and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, this dynamic made it easy for well-funded real estate interests to fill in the gaps and define it how they wanted to. This clearly cost Prop 10 a lot of should-be voters.

That is less of an issue with Universal Rent Control in New York. Although the scope of the proposal is still being worked out, the broad goals are clear and who benefits is clear: every rental unit in New York state will become protected (it’s less than half now.) Every loophole that allows landlords to raise rentsevict tenants, or deregulate units will be removed. Every renter will have new eviction and harassment protection.

Though URC is easier to understand than Prop 10, it is important that activists and progressive legislators work together quickly to define the specific proposals around universal rent control before real estate interests start flooding the air with advertisements against it. This will make it easier to rally the broad spectrum of renters that stand to benefit from the plan, particularly market rate tenants that must be brought on board to pressure other legislators in the Democratic Party.

  1. Seize the new political landscape in Albany

Pressure is key. California, just like New York, is blue, but that hasn’t translated into progressive housing legislation. This pattern cost them with Prop 10, which first died in a Democrat-controlled committee before reappearing as a ballot initiative. There are not enough Democrats in office in California with the stomach to challenge the real estate industry and their wealthy homeowner constituents to enact the type of far-reaching reforms necessary to fight the housing crisis.

That had been the case in New York before the November election, but now Democrats control all three branches of elected government and have a rare window to challenge the status quo. Democrats have dominated the Assembly for years, but the big difference is the Senate, where Democrats took control for just the third time in more than fifty years, fueled by an aggressively pro-tenant wave of first-time candidates.

Housing Justice for All rally on Nov. 15, 2018. Photo Credit: Pete Harrison

The wildcard will be New York’s Governor Cuomo, who ran to the left because he was pushed there by a spirited challenger. He has been a big friend of the real estate lobby for as long as he’s been in politics. He is now in uncharted territory, but it appears that he can no longer hide behind New York’s long standing closed-door dealdynamic.

Unlike in California, having complete control of state government should mean that universal rent control would get considerable attention from legislators. The severity of the crisis along with the significant shift away from real estate money in elections should keep pressure on the Governor and other members of the Democratic Party who might otherwise be wary of angering the real estate industry. 

Defining the proposals for URC quickly and keeping activist groups engaged throughout the process will hopefully be enough to turn the electoral momentum into firm legislative action.

  1. Debunk classic economic arguments against rent control

In California, the real estate lobby spent the majority of its money on television ads harping on the classic Econ 101 arguments against rent control. These arguments are not as strong as they appear. The reality of the housing market has always been more complicated than simplistic models suggest and it is critical to push back on them.

First, studies that claim rent control harms the creation of new housing or the quality of existing housing fail to properly account for the more demonstrable variables that limit supply in tight and densely populated markets like New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles like natural geographic barriers, social preferences of land use, the limited extent of transportation networks, and even a desire to limit competition among developers.

Second, they tend to underplay how decades of (federal and local) government policies have privileged real estate and empowered financial markets to commodify housing.  The housing market ‘s priority is enriching investors instead of meeting the overwhelming demand for affordable shelter. That explains how the Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the U.S. is missing 7.2 million affordable housing units, yet 250,000 units sit empty in New York City alone.

Third, they ignore the bigger problem with the housing market: rent-seeking behavior. There’s only so much land, particularly in desirable markets like New York where it’s value has skyrocketed over the last 20 years as more people and firms want to move here (for better or worse). This has made city landowners incredibly wealthy.

The pay-to-play nature of our political process means that they also have a disproportionate amount of power over things that impact the housing market like property taxes, zoning, and affordable housing policy. This almost always harms the public while driving up property values. It helps explain everything from why so many commercial spaces are empty to why it costs so much to build new affordable housing and homeless shelters.

When we acknowledge that the housing market in reality encourages rent-seeking behavior and show how much it corrupts public policy, rent control becomes a legitimate and necessary intervention to empower tenants and the broader public against economic and political exploitation.

Prop 10 was ultimately a bad presentation of a compelling and urgent public policy choice. Even if real estate interests hadn’t spent so much money distorting it, it failed to capture the general public’s attention or imagination.

That doesn’t have to be the case in New York, where Universal Rent Control has already done that for many renters and voters. Now that it has a shot in Albany, California’s experience can help it get over the finish line.