universal rent control

'Good Cause' is the great cause of market renters in 2019 - so let's get it passed

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On June 15th, rent regulation laws are once again set to expire in New York, potentially impacting millions of renters. This happens every few years but, outside of a collection of tenant groups, politicians, and journalists, most New Yorkers don’t ever notice.

Why should they? More than half of the renters in NYC don’t have any type of rent protections at all — and NYC is by far the largest concentration of rent regulated apartments in the US, let alone in the state. If the rent laws only impact a small (getting smaller) group of renters, who cares? Honestly, in past years, there hasn’t been much reason for market-rate tenants to care.

That’s all changed this year. This year we’re fighting for Universal Rent Control. It means what it says — protection for all types of renters.

For the first time in living memory, if you’re a market-rate tenant, you have a big, big stake in this year’s fight — it’s called ‘Good Cause’. And we need your help to make sure it passes.

The purpose of the bill is simple but revolutionary. If you live in a building with more than 3 units anywhere in the state, you are guaranteed the right to a lease renewal with a limited increase in rent. 

It’s that simple. And it covers millions of market-rate renters. It is the single biggest expansion of rent protections in New York since rent stabilization was reformed in 1974.

That means you won’t have to worry about your landlord jacking up your rent if you live in a gentrifying neighborhood. That means you don’t have to worry about your landlord kicking you out because they don’t like your kids. That means you won’t have to worry about complaining to your landlord about fixing the stove because you’re afraid they might tell you to move. 

That means you will have a hell of a lot of leverage to renegotiate with your landlord because they can’t just assume they can get someone else to move in for more. It also means you have a say in your building along with all your neighbors.

That’s never been the case for market-rate tenants. You’ve never had any protections or any leverage. And you’ve never had any reason to fight for tenants rights.

Now you do. And trust me, we need your help.

First, the housing crisis demands that all renters work together right now. Over half of all renters in New York are considered rent-burdened, meaning you pay more than 30% of your income towards rent. That’s a big reason why there is a record 90,000 homeless New Yorkers across the state. Market-rate tenants are often times the most vulnerable to eviction and homelessness in the state.

Second, the real estate industry is the most powerful special interest in New York and will do everything it can to stop Good Cause and the rest of the Universal Rent Control package. It has spent untold millions of dollars over decades to elect supportive politicians and block tenant protections. They spent millions in last year’s election and lost big for the first time. (A lot of the same developers also spent $80 million last year in California on TV ads confusing people about a rent control ballot vote that was popular with voters but lost). We can expect them to spend a lot of money and exert a lot of pressure from now until June.

Third, there are a lot of politicians, even allegedly progressive Democrats — check up on your rep, trust me — who don’t support tenants. That might be because they are dependent on real estate money to win re-election or it might be because they are landlords themselves. But in a lot of cases, politicians simply don’t know much about housing policy (it’s confusing for everyone) and they don’t hear enough from stressed renters in their district.

This year and this fight is different, though. There is a real chance to transform our housing market across the state for all renters. It’s also a real chance to shake up our political system that runs on real estate money. Those interests find and elect Republicans and conservative Democrats that end up blocking a lot of other progressive policies that most of us want.

The good news is that we’ve already seen some big wins. The same people fighting for Good Cause right now — and the rest of the Universal Rent Control platform — are the same people who helped unseat real estate-backed Democrats and Republicans in last year’s election that gave the Democrats the biggest majority in the State Senate in a century. In their place, we got a number of new pro-tenant progressives elected to fight for all renters.

One of those progressives is Julia Salazar, who introduced the Good Cause bill in the Senate.

We’ve done a lot so far, but we have a long way to go until June. The real estate industry is bloodied, but looking to rebound. Some Democrats who supported tenants’ rights when Republicans were in charge don’t seem so sure now that Democrats are. And Governor Cuomo thinks he can bully everyone away from pro-tenant policies that scare his developer friends.

You don’t need to know anything about rent regulations or housing policy to know that you’re paying too much money in rent. You don’t need to follow politics to know that the real estate industry has had too much power in this state. And you don’t need to be on the street protesting to make a real difference.

If you’re a market-rate tenant, find your state senator or state assembly member. Call them. Write them an email. Send them a tweet. Make it known that maybe you haven’t been involved in tenants’ rights before, but you’re a market-rate tenant and you’re tired of paying so much and having so little protection. Good cause is your cause. Let’s make it happen.

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.

5 Reasons to Support Universal Rent Control

(stoprebnybullies)

(stoprebnybullies)

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.


Universal Rent Control is about more than tenant power, it’s about reestablishing democratic power over the market


As election day approaches, the stakes keep getting higher and the political environment keeps getting scarier. It was inevitable that the President would turn to imaginary fears and blatantly false claims to poison the climate, partly because he sees the grave risk in “losing” the midterms, but mainly because that’s who he is. It is disheartening that so many other Americans seem to share his darkest impulses. It might not be enough to prevent Democrats from retaking the House, but we’ve seen that song and dance before. 

The real question for me is: how much will change if the Democrats win? The battle in New York for Universal Rent Control is a good place to consider what needs to change, what could change, and what might not change within the Democratic Party.

(Honestly, this blog got away from me and is more about the political process around URC than specific policy proposals, but feel free to check out something I wrote about it here for more details. I will be following up this article with more about URC.)

Now, of course things will change considerably for the President if Democrats take back the House. There will be actual oversight of the administration. There will be meaningful roadblocks to the Republican agenda on the hill. There will be some reaffirmation of some democratic checks and balances. This is all great.

But, look, we’re still in a bad way. The faith in our democratic institutions has eroded because the institutions themselves have eroded. The faith we have in each other as a whole has eroded because our vision of each other as a whole has fractured. The faith we have in the American Dream has eroded because our economic reality is a world away from it. Most disturbingly, the faith we have in our climate security has eroded because our planet is clearly in grave trouble and we’re failing to face it.

None of this changes if the Democrats take back the House

It won’t change and it’s not for the obvious reasons that they might still lose the Senate, don’t control the White House, and don’t control the Court. It’s the same reason why even taking power back in New York might not result in real change.

It’s because the Democratic Party doesn’t have any real answers for these problems. They haven’t for decades. Just look at this recent interview with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (starting at 2:58.) Seriously, what the hell is she actually talking about? They are nowhere near the nihilism of the Republican Party, but that’s not hard or virtuous. 

As the party continues to make commendable strides in promoting diverse candidates that better reflect the 21st century American experience, it has been notably less successful at promoting ideological diversity. They have allowed candidates to run to the right, but have mostly isolated those that run to the left. 

It’s obvious why: Democrats have been corrupted by the same system that has corrupted the Republican Party, only in slightly different ways, by only slightly different actors. And that system isn’t working.

For decades, both parties fully embraced neoliberalism as the end of history ideology

Privatization, deregulation, and globalization have been the name of the game for 40 years in America and both parties have become beholden to the moneyed interests that wanted it, benefit from it, and jealously guard it.

To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with a competitive private sector, a proactive regulatory regime, or a deeply connected international world. In balance these elements can make us all safer, richer — financially and culturally- and healthier. But neoliberalism hasn’t delivered that world. There is no balance. 

There is something inherently wrong with “trusting markets.” 

The obvious point is that neoliberalism by definition doesn’t trust or value democratic control of power. It’s central belief dictates that power will be competitively dispersed between rational economic actors and that that competition will inevitably produce better outcomes for society. 

Those are some major leaps of faith to build a global society on:

  • It assumes that economic actors are rational (which is far from true for individuals, firms, and even states) and discounts the consequences of when they aren’t rational, which is most of the time. 

  • It assumes that competition between these actors will be honored rather than crushed, which is what always happens (either by brute force or collusion) and is unprepared for the fallout. 

  • And it assumes that all of this will produce a better society, while it has clearly ignored the toll it takes on the planet and on vulnerable populations.

What neoliberalism has left us with is a vastly unequal and unparalleled concentration of wealth and power that we can barely see let alone hold accountable. It has left us with a wake of destructive exploitation of human populations and natural resources that we can’t prevent or replenish. It has left us with severely compromised democratic governments that can’t represent or protect us. And it has put the very-near-future of our planet in peril. 

This is because the hallmark of neoliberalism is illiberalism, a fake democracy. It’s a term that we’re starting to hear used more about countries like Turkey, Russia, and Poland, but we have been experiencing it here for a long time. The structural flaws within the Constitution, the shameful voting suppression efforts in many states, and the corruptive flow of money across all levels of politics and media have warped our government far from any definition of “self.” Neoliberalism requires this. It’s a really raw deal for most of us.

How Democrats went from the New Deal to Neoliberalism matters for how we get them out

The Democratic Party is complicit in this. The party abandoned its New Deal commitment to democratic control over the economy, to public investment and ownership, and to sharing the benefits of prosperity evenly across society with an ever wary eye towards the future.

The New Deal represented a clear, unifying theory of self-governance forged from the trauma of the Great Depression: a strong interventionist state to create and spread wealth. It became the bedrock for the greatest sustained civic growth and wealth creation in the history of the world and it kept Democrats in power for 50 years. It remained the de facto organizing principle for decades because not only was it a powerful narrative, but it did what it said it would do. People believed in it because it did make life in America better.

Mostly for white Americans. That commitment wasn’t perfect and its fatal flaw was its reliance on actively preventing other groups, domestically and internationally, from partaking in it, often violently. 

By the 1970s, the world was starting to catch up with the US economically or resist it’s influence militarily and at home the civil rights and gender equality movements, plus opposition to the Vietnam War, began to fracture the coalition. Tragically, it could not adjust to these new voices and realties. 

For the first time, many people felt that the American pie was as big as it was going to get and that it was necessary to fight over and protect your piece of it and prevent others from getting close to it. The right started exploiting these tensions to further crack the coalition with growing success. Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” worked twice and has remained the Republican Party’s default playbook ever since. It has only been more naked with Trumpism.

When the New Deal seemingly ran out of answers to expand the American pie, it created a vacuum that neoliberalism filled.

Racial appeals and resentment were powerful subtext, but a movement needs actual text to rally around. Neoliberalism was a powerful narrative answer, especially in the hands of President Reagan. It was cloaked in Cold War rhetoric and spoke about expanding freedom throughout the US and the world. The way to expand the pie was to end communism and open up the world’s markets. It seemed very American.

But, unlike the New Deal, neoliberalism hasn’t done what it said it would do. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has done exactly what it was intended to do, but its supporters who said otherwise were either villains or fools. It has seized political power from popular representation and given it to a small amount of corporations and wealthy individuals. 

There is nothing “American” about enriching a tiny portion of stateless oligarchs and firms by turning people against each other, by robbing the public of our own social and economic capital, and by selling out future generations even as the current population’s slice of the pie is actually getting smaller. But that is what has happened under neoliberalism.

Although President Reagan was wildly popular and enacting neoliberalism created an air of revolutionary spirit, it never did kill the New Deal coalition. Democrats remained in control of Congress all during this period and voters remained wary of calls to totally deconstruct the welfare state (at least for white people.) 

But Democrats killed the New Deal Coalition. Bill Clinton killed the New Deal Coalition.

Though many old guards held out, a new generation of party leaders eagerly accepted the premise that the New Deal was failing, that America had turned right and that it was advantageous to go with them. Rather than try to challenge corporations’ and wealthy individual’s power, they wanted to channel it.

In the wake of several presidential losses (though, again, Dems held Congress each time) Clinton became Nixon essentially in 1992 and ushered in a Democratic machine that relied on big donor money and cosy relationships to corporations and Wall Street while distancing itself from “the era of Big Government” as though it hadn’t worked for the majority of Americans all along. Tough on crime, tough on welfare, tough on unions looked like “Serious People Making Serious Decisions” but was really slow moving betrayal of the New Deal coalition. 

The party has remained in the Clinton image ever since. President Obama included. It hasn’t been able to counter Republicans slow turn to the right because it has largely accepted their worldview and has been left arguing over degrees.

Ironically, Republicans realized the neoliberal game was up first

Despite pulling a Weekend At Bernies with the corpse of Ronald Reagan for years, it has been clear for a long time that Republicans have largely abandoned neoliberalism and replaced it with an ethno-nationalism that is really just zero-sum oligarchy with a bunch of racism and fanaticism to scrape out electoral victories.

The Democratic Party, at the national level, but also at local levels, has been left in the awkward and clearly untenable position of half-heartedly defending neoliberalism. Sure, compared to the nihilism of the Republican Party, protecting the status quo seems appealing and even noble, but it isn’t. 

Neoliberalism in the first place was a betrayal of the modern Democratic Party’s New Deal ethos and hasn’t worked for most Americans anyway. The American pie is getting bigger for the wealthy (many of which aren’t American) but fewer people are getting slices at all.

Forget #theresistance and resist the Democratic Party’s continued dereliction of duty

At all levels of the Democratic Party, the reliance on big donors and corporate coziness has killed its ability or desire to counter this and to address the issues facing our country in meaningful ways. Big, sweeping visions of societal change are anathema to these interests and thus the party has turned to bland incrementalism and technocratic insularity to keep muddling along. 

It is obvious that this has failed as a political strategy, particularly at the state level where Democrats have lost over almost a 1000 seats since 2008. But it has failed as a moral imperative. 

We need big thinking to turn things around. We need big actions to save the country and the planet. We need big ideas to overcome the cultural decadence and civic rot fueling all of this, which was encouraged by the individualist consumerism that neoliberalism requires.

That’s why the Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign was so important, even if it fell short. It started much needed and much unwanted soul searching within the party because it was about big ideas. It was about what kind of country and what kind of world we can create if we control it. 

It offered a glimpse of a 21st century version of a New Deal coalition that has had a powerful impact on the party, despite every effort to resist it. It shows that there is a hunger for taking back democratic control over the economy and the environment from the market that neoliberalism trusts exclusively.

It has been slow and will continue to be, but the successes of leftist social-democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (full disclosure: I volunteer for her on housing policy), Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib at the national level means there will be more voices in Congress speaking for more people that have been voiceless there and within the Democrat Party for too long. This is an important development, regardless of who wins control of the House on November 6th.

Universal Rent Control is one of many local fronts in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party

Wrestling back democratic control of the Democratic Party at the national level will be a multi-cycle project. There are, however, a lot of opportunities to impact the party’s future where you live. The real fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is happening locally as we speak over issues like Universal Rent Control.

In New York City, Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory swept national attention and has made her an instant rockstar on the left, but she will be the first to say that she is part of a ground-up grassroots movement that is bigger than any one candidate or office.

That was on display in many New York Senate primary races on September 13th where 5 of the 6 NYC members of the infamous Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who voted with Republicans in Albany, all lost to left-leaning candidates. All of these candidates ran on an unapologetically social-democratic agenda that includes universal rent control. They and others need help to win in the general election.

There is a real chance that despite severe gerrymandering, and real estate lobby money, Democrats will win the Senate in Albany for the first time in decades (the Assembly has long been in Democratic control) on the strength of this social-democratic agenda.

Democratic control of Albany doesn’t mean social democratic control — or that Universal Rent Control happens

If that happens, we’ll see just how much of a battle taking back the Democratic Party will be and why neoliberalism has such deep roots in Democratic politcs. The IDC and Republicans are an easy target to blame for the lack of more progressive policy in New York state, but the truth is more complicated. 

Many New York Democrats, notably Governor Cuomo, who is the poster boy for cynical Third Way Clintonism (he was HUD Secretary in Clinton’s second term after all), are skeptical of progressive policies and have deep ties to the real estate industry that make up the base of the traditional big donor interests in Albany.

Will these traditional Democrats listen to their constituents and the grass-roots movement trying to save the Democratic Party? How many Democratic voters recognize how much of the problem lies within the Democratic Party itself? The primary results show that there is real momentum, but the activists fueling this rise need to rally more Democratic voters to the cause, and it means talking about big ideas again.

URC and every progressive fight must be framed as taking back democratic control over our economic and environmental destiny

Universal rent control is a big idea. At heart, it is a series of policy proposals that aim to protect all renters in New York state from harassment, displacement, and homelessness. It’s a completely justifiable policy proposal given the structural nature of the housing crisis that cries out for more tenant protections. Half of all renters in New York are rent-burdened and there are over 89,000 homeless New Yorkers in the state. On top of this, the city and state are not ready for climate change, which will effect many of these low-income communities first.

Universal Rent Control has been and will continue to be attacked by the real estate lobby, most economists, and many members of the media as a foolish, self-destructive fantasy. That’s horseshit.

“Highest best use” has been the religion defining neoliberalism’s economic and political policy for decades, even as it has enriched faceless corporate entities at the expense of local communities and popular representation. The principles of efficient allocation of resources appear to be agnostic and empirical, but they are still subjective assessments of fundamentally moral arguments about what a society should be and whom a government should serve.

That’s why URC must be understood as being the head of a larger political spear aimed at fighting the illiberalism at the heart of neoliberalism. It is about taking back power from the high priests of the market. The goal is to give power back to the people through democratically elected leaders and popularly supported laws. 

Illiberalism has been on displace within New York State for years: blatant gerrymandering, terrible voting laws, and endless amounts of anonymous money (much of it coming from the real estate lobby) make New York’s government a truly anti-democratic institution. Only popular movements like URC can finally end this system.

To be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that ‘the people’ will agree on every issue. The point is to reestablish democracy as a forum where all sides felt heard, all views are addressed, and as much consensus is reached as possible. Only then will our self-government live up to its definition. Only then will it have legitimacy and buy-in, even if the results are compromises. That’s the whole point.

This is all a moral failure. Let’s keep calling it that.

Democrats have long abandoned the sense of morality that was the foundation of the New Deal coalition’s success. I’m not suggesting that the Democratic Party is devoid of morality. They have adopted moral language rhetorically for certain vulnerable populations and on the environment. Some of this language has resulted in real, meaningful action. 

But most hasn’t. As a result it falls into the lose-lose situation of being lambasted for its overly “PC” rhetoric and focus on identity politics while not actually taking legislative stands for those issues, harming those constituencies.

Democrats don’t need to try to revive the New Deal coalition per se. 40 years of increased diversity and increased economic burden has greatly expanded what this coalition should and could look like. But to do so will require reviving the moral clarity and civic purpose that it represented. If the New Deal came out of the Great Depression, the next version should come out of the Great Recession. 

It is a message that already polls well with Americans from all political spectrums. There will be political victory if the Democrats do, but that will pale in comparison to saving the country and the planet. The only way to do that is to wrest control back from the markets.

Let’s start with calling out the immorality of our housing policy. 80,000 of our fellow New Yorkers should not be homeless. Half of all renters should not be burdened. So many seniors should not be so close to housing disaster. Communities shouldn’t be displaced for the sake of private equity profits. 

These are choices that have been made without our consent. Universal Rent Control is the first step in taking control of these choices and fixing them. That means greater public investment and ownership of housing. That means holding the private sector accountable as a partner, not as a master. It means redefining what our society should value and who should get to debate and ultimately define that.

For all of us as individuals, this means getting out there and supporting movements and candidates that want to take control of these choices. There is still time before November 6th to get involved, but the work won’t end there. It won’t end if Democrats win or lose in Albany or DC. We must keep shaping the fight for the soul of the party and keep making it clear that this is about saving our shared future.

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Trump's Real Estate Taxes, the Supreme Court, and Climate Change Are All Related (That's a Good Thing)


It’s only been a week since the New York Times published an article about Trump’s prolific tax cheating with his father’s real estate fortune, but it’s fallen out of the news. That’s not surprising given the complexity of the story and the baked-in awareness that Donald Trump was/is not an honest businessman. It’s also nowhere near being the most important national story given the ugly Kavanaugh confirmation debacle and the dire UN climate change report. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, all three stories are deeply related.

To put it broadly, without radically changing our real estate laws, we can not save our country from climate change and to change our laws that radically, they will need to pass through the Supreme Court eventually. 

As of today, both seem like a daunting if not impossible tasks. The Supreme Court is set up to spend the next generation turning us back to the 19th century. The entire conservative movement over the last 40 years has worked to empower a judicial philosophy that is openly hostile to popular democratic governance and legislative oversight of the economy. And they just locked in power for next 40. 

On top of that, real estate has long been one of the most privileged industries and asset classes in America. That makes it deeply small-c conservative and has given it a powerful set of tools and incentives to prevent major reform, whether on its tax policy, its relationship to political contributions, or its environmental impact. 

These interests have lots of lobbying power at the national level, but their true power is on the state and local levels. They block candidates and policy initiatives that are perceived to “threaten” property values and are the main barrier to reforming land-use policy around economic and environmental justice. Overcoming that structure is extremely challenging.

But before you despair, let’s consider why the Trump tax cheat story is so important: it offers a hack into changing all of this. 

To defeat President Trump or the Republican Party, we must defeat Real Estate Developer Donald Trump.

To quickly recap, the Times story poured over thousands of court and tax documents and spoke with hundreds of people associated with the Trump Organization and family to reveal three fundamental facts: 

  • Donald Trump didn’t build his real estate empire like he claims, he illegally inherited it from his father. 

  • Fred Trump, the father, built most of that empire through gaming the federal government for millions in tax subsidies. 

  • Father and son committed systemic tax fraud over decades that directly harmed tenants

All of this happened by aggressively exploiting the already favorable tax code that allows real estate developers to self-assess lower property values for tax purposes, to arbitrarily split management structures to hide profits while overcharging vendors and tenants, and to shield ownership through obscure legal entities to further dwindle tax liabilities. 

The bad news is that, at this stage, it seems likely that the Trump family has already gotten away with it (although New York is looking into it). Most (but definitely not all) of these moves are perfectly legal given how the real estate lobby has helped write the tax code at the local and federal level for decades. That’s true in every state.

This is largely because a tiny fraction of the population, like the Trump family, has an immense amount of the wealth generated over the last few decades and as a result has captured almost all of the political power. Real estate money is the foundation of this power structure and always has been. Who owns the land is the very basis of power in America, which both Republicans and Democrats have protected. 

When then-candidate Trump bragged about giving money to both parties, this is basically what he was bragging about. Almost every big real estate interest is like that. 

The Trump tax cheating story then is incredibly useful as a rallying cry for real estate reform because it is a shorthand to explain how damaging real estate law is in the US and it is also a roadmap for how to change it. 

That’s where the good news comes in: we are already starting to dismantle this power structure. 

In New York, the Democratic primary on Sept 13th saw a slate of progressive pro-tenant candidates defeat real-estate backed candidates, potentially shifting the balance of power in Albany for the first time in generations. Their victories were backed by a growing bottom-up coalition for universal rent control that has a real shot of removing the type of legal loopholes that the Trumps used to jack up rents and avoid taxes for decades.

If Democrats take the senate in Albany next month, there is a real chance that a once-in-a-generation reform movement can take hold in Albany. Universal rent control should start with issues related to rents of course, but it should expand to address all of the background mechanics of real estate tax law and political contributions that have fed this unjust system for decades. 

This coalition is gaining power as a popular response to the affordable housing crisis and has a real plan to address it. But just as importantly it is also helping people begin to see that the affordable housing crisis is part of a larger inequality crisis across our late capitalist society. The environmental destruction ravaging our planet is a logical outcome.

There are few, if any, states that aren’t subject to the toxic mix of shadowy real estate law and shadowy political contributions from real estate. Without removing their hold on power, we will never be able to make the changes we need to protect the environment in the long-term and protect the must vulnerable populations in the short-term. 

Even if that happens, the real estate interests profiting from this power structure will inevitably look to the Supreme Court to protect it. 

Anti-union, pro-voter suppression, and generally skeptical of the administrative state, the current court, now with Kavanaugh confirmed, looks set up to bail out “Big Real Estate” (or maybe the more Georgist “Big Land”?) But on closer look, they shouldn’t be so sure.

The Supreme Court famously does not have the power of the purse or the sword. It is a deliberative body that interprets laws, which is inherently a subjective process (which so-called “originalists” prove in action). It’s credibility as a separate, legitimate third branch of government has always rested on its popular support regardless of any rhetoric suggesting otherwise. It can get away with being out of step with the majority of people for only so long.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t need to worry about that. Blocking Judge Merrick Garland and now jamming through Brett Kavanaugh has severely damaged the court’s image as a non-partisan institution, but Republicans will be rewarded by their donor class for it. (Their base may get some short-term victory on further restricting abortion access, but it will pale in comparison to the losses they suffer in the long-run from the conservative movement’s real priorities). 

Chief Justice Roberts does need to worry about the Court’s image. It’s one thing to strike down EPA restrictions on (flimsy) grounds of federal overreach, but it’s entirely another to strike down direct laws passed by state legislatures. There is at least some evidence that Chief Justice Roberts understands that blindly delivering partisan victories for conservatives is bad for the health of the court, and, perhaps generously, for the country. Overturning popularly supported state laws even if they are counter to prevailing a la carte conservative judicial theory seems unlikely. There is hope, at least.

But even getting in front of the Supreme Court starts with getting laws passed at the state level. That will take building broad coalitions across and within states that agree on a narrow set of legislative priorities that can get them passed. 

I believe that real estate reform is the perfect issue to kindle the formation of these coalitions. The power of developers and landowners over our politics has crippled our democracy, long before its crippled our ability to face climate change. There are immediate and well-defined legislative goals that can be achieved to break that structure. 

The progress made on electing candidates in the New York Senate that support universal rent control is a great start. There is much to be done from there. But if we can create a model for passing progressive laws on real estate reform, we can do so for climate change. 

It starts with telling a simple story to as many people as possible. We have one now. Showing how Real Estate Developer Trump has harmed New Yorkers both as a landlord and a political contributor is a powerful way to start dismantling the system that created President Trump, the plutocrat supporting, climate-change denier. 

(market watch/ getty images)

(market watch/ getty images)

Rent control doesn't work, but universal rent control could (via Data for Progress)

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This blog originally appeared in the Econo-missed section of Data for Progress

Dear Econo-missed,

I live in a major city and I’m increasingly engaged in local politics. But I’m still trying to get a sense of the issues - I hadn’t thought much about them before.  Candidates I like like Zellnor Myrie and Julia Salazar talk about the idea of universal rent control? I’ve heard from economists that rent control is bad because it distorts free markets, which have never failed anyone. - Definitely Not Sean, New York

Universal rent control (URC) at this point is a fairly broad term, but in the context of New York City, it’s essentially a series of policy proposals that aim to fix the many flaws in current rent regulation laws (which, for the purpose of this blog, includes rent stabilization and rent control policies, but not Section 8 or public housing policies). These laws only apply to some, mostly older buildings and have tons of loopholes that allow units to be deregulated. Universal rent control would expand protections to every rental unit and remove those loopholes. It would “distort” the housing market, but, as we’ll discuss, it could also fix the bigger issue distorting it.

The URC fight has been embraced by a group of insurgent state candidates on the left and has the support of many leading activist groups in the city and upstate (full disclosure: I volunteer for the Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar campaigns). With these laws up for renewal in Albany next year, this framing marks an important shift away from previous (mostly losing) battles over the issue and is quite timely.

What really excites me about URC goes to the second question about rent control and markets. URC would of course impact rent costs, but what it could do to land costs is potentially even more important.

Rent regulations are one of economists’ favorite “gotcha” concepts because they go against every basic market theory that says the highest and best use of an asset is intrinsically the best for a society. The scale of displacement in NYC puts that concept to bed. New York City has been a vibrant place historically because it has been possible to be poor and working class here. Without protecting these New Yorkers, that vibrancy will end.

Rent regulations limit how much a landlord can charge for an apartment and how much they can increase rent over time. They are often blamed for raising rents and/or lowering supply in cities overall but these arguments vastly overstate their impact compared to more pressing issues like rising construction costs and, especially, skyrocketing land costs.

Land costs are the key here. Economists argue that rent regulations create terrible inefficiencies in markets, but they should also be worried about rent-seeking behavior doing the same.  An “economic rent” is the extra wealth earned from an asset used in its present form (not to be confused with the “rent” we pay each month) and rent-seeking is the attempt to manipulate circumstances to increase that rent without creating new value from it. Owning land, particularly in a city like NYC, is a “gotcha” example of rent-seeking behavior run amok.

The economic value of housing is mostly tied to the value of the land its on, which has little to do with a landlord’s investment and more to do with surrounding public investment. From the tenant’s perspective then, why should she pay more for something the landlord didn’t even create? You don’t need to be a Georgist to see that this is inefficient. It robs the tenant and the economy of more productive use of her income (while completely ignoring the overall well-being of her community.)

To be clear, current rent regulation laws in NYC aren’t designed to challenge rent-seeking behavior. Given the patchwork history of legislation and the oafishly corrupt nature of Albany politics, they don’t have a cohesive goal, let alone design. They limit the rent increase for some renters to some degree, but they ignore or create a host of other problems.

Universal rent control does challenge rent-seeking behavior. Doing so could fundamentally change the economic calculus in NYC real estate and the potential value of land by making housing more of a utility than a commodity. Keep in mind URC is still just a series of broadly defined proposals, but conceptually it offers a glimpse at a more equitable and democratic future.

To start with, less than half of all rental units in NYC fall under current rent regulations, which severely limits the political power of renters as a united front against the well funded and organized real estate industry. There is little incentive for market-rate tenants to cooperate with rent-regulated tenants. This leaves a smaller, poorer, and older population to fight for tenants’ rights for everyone.

URC calls for extending rent regulations to all rental units in New York, which would radically change this political dynamic. The sheer number of renters as a political constituency could offset the financial power of the real estate industry in Albany and create more protections and, most importantly, real innovation in affordable housing.

Another problem with current laws is loopholes - too many perverse means and motive for landlords to force rent increases and/or to force out tenants. The most disastrous policy, vacancy decontrol, allows apartments to leave rent regulations altogether when they hit $2,733/m. The city lost an estimated 147,500 affordable units over the last 24 years to this alone.

URC would end vacancy decontrol and remove loopholes around vacancy bonusespreferential rents, and major capital improvements. In effect, they would permanently prevent the speculative (and cynical) calculations that some landlords make to get passed regulations.

It’s not that landlords can’t still make a profit, but there would be a cap. This would suppress the speculative value of land across the city. It would certainly scare off the worst actors in the market and likely create space for local landlords, non-profits, and models like community land trusts to enter the market instead. This would be a net positive for NYC.

Rent regulations attempt to maximize the value of shelter over financial value, which is a foreign concept at this stage of late capitalism America. Most economists think that’s a mistake, but keeping wealth and power in local communities rather than private equity firms or foreign investors is more democratic, better for the economy, and better for the life of the city in the long run. Universal rent control can help rebalance our economic priorities in NYC.