The Age of Housing Austerity

The Age of Housing Austerity

A raft of laws at the state level has given tenants new tools to fight eviction. But when it comes to the broader housing crisis, most elected leaders have done little more than kick the can down the road.

Activists hold a rally to oppose New York City Housing Authority's (NYCHA) "Public Housing Preservation Trust" on the steps of City Hall on May 23, 2022. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

For a few months in 2020, it seemed like the CDC eviction moratorium had ushered in a new public understanding of property relations in the United States: rent payments could simply pause, and for a time people unable to make rent could avoid homelessness. While justices of the peace in much of the country found wiggle room in the CDC order, evicting as they saw fit, places like New York held firm. Albany passed a throng of its own protections between April 2020 and January 2021, and over 200,000 evictions in New York City were stalled. But on January 15 of this year, the last of those protections expired as rent skyrocketed across the country, wages fell even further behind inflation, and COVID-19 emergency relief programs ran on empty. In response to these deeper problems, most elected leaders have done little more than kick the can down the road.

Take New York City’s 2017 Right To Counsel (RTC) law: Following a wave of activism in coalition with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the city became the first in the country to legally require courts to offer tenants (with incomes under 200 percent of the state’s poverty line) an attorney when facing eviction. It was, at first, a success. Evictions decreased by 41 percent from 2013 to 2019, and between 2020 and 2021 84 percent of tenants represented by RTC attorneys remained housed. The rollout was initially staggered by Zip Code. But the pandemic impelled lawmakers to make the program citywide to meet increased need, and in doing so exposed its Achilles’ heel: there simply aren’t enough lawyers to go around.

In early May, the nine paralegals at RiseBoro Community Partnership, an RTC legal aid group operating in Brooklyn, were each juggling around sixty eviction cases. Some of those cases, one paralegal told me, had become more about buying time—for the tenant to apply for rental assistance or locate a new apartment, or for their children to finish out the school year before being displaced—than winning outright in court. With nearly 200,000 evictions backlogged, and around 7,000 additional cases filed each month in New York since protections were was lifted, time is scarce. In March and April, some legal aid organizations announced that they had to limit the number of cases they could manage or stop accepting new cases altogether. They pled for the courts to slow down. The courts refused, and now more and more tenants are facing a judge on their own.

New York housing court might be “breaking,” as New York Magazine reported, but the broken system here has an uncanny resemblance to the national status quo. When a tenant stands before a judge without a lawyer, the court is merely functioning like most others in the United States.

Since 2017, three states and fifteen cities, including New York, have ensured a tenant’s right—but not a guarantee—to counsel. This is progress, but the economic inequities that give landlords better access to attorneys nationwide can’t be solved with patchwork legal representation. “If your landlord decides that he or she is going to increase your rent by $1,000, you can pay that rent or you can leave,” said Kent Arthur, director of RiseBoro’s legal team. Landlords, while often inconvenienced by the RTC program, still maintain outsized control.

A “Good Cause” eviction bill, first introduced by State Senator and DSA member Julia Salazar of Brooklyn and Assembly Member Pamela Hunter of Syracuse in 2019, could chip away at the legal imbalances between landlord and tenant. The legislation has been praised, and denigrated, as a soft form of rent stabilization, capping increases at either 3 percent or 1.5 times the annual percent change in the Consumer Price Index. It would also legally require landlords of market-rate apartments to offer new leases to existing tenants. But the bill didn’t garner enough support in Albany this June, failing in the Senate for the third time.

The Good Cause bill, combined with a tenant’s right to counsel, has the potential to keep thousands of people in New York housed by adding an essential argument to lawyers’ arsenals. But Good Cause would work more like a legal shield against rent increases than rent control. As Cea Weaver, an activist and campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, explained to Hell Gate, “You’d raise Good Cause as a defense in that non-payment case and a judge would decide what the deal is. That requires tenants to be really, really willing to stand up and fight for their rights.”

It’s telling that these landmark reforms take aim at housing court rather than housing itself. Activists have been far outspent by developer interests. While they’ve managed to push forward significant reforms to make things fairer for tenants after an eviction has been filed, no one is under the illusion that these efforts would solve the housing crisis. The rental housing market, a $229 billion industry as of 2022, remains a Goliath unscathed.

Public Trust

At the twilight of this year’s legislative session, another housing bill that had already been killed twice was suddenly brought back to life. The bill, signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul on June 16, establishes a new entity called the New York City Public Housing Preservation Trust. Its mandate is to convert 25,000 public housing units from Section 9 to Section 8, which would free up cash to issue bonds and allow a newly formed public benefit corporation to borrow money from private investors. Section 9 supplies financial assistance to local housing authorities to operate affordable housing units, in essence creating an alternative to the housing market. Section 8, crafted as a rebuke to public housing, works in two different ways. Either a tenant receives a voucher that they can take to private landlords, who aren’t legally allowed to reject them but often do. Or the landlord requests a project-based voucher, which subsidizes their property in return for a promise to offer a number of affordable units for an indefinite amount of time. The new trust will use the second model, financializing public housing stock in order to keep it afloat.

The trust’s “Blueprint for Change” was initially proposed two years ago by Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Housing Authority Gregory Russ—once nicknamed the “Czar of Privatization” by residents of Minneapolis, where he had held a similar position. But this year’s last-minute iteration of the bill was sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar, the DSA member who also sponsored Good Cause.

New York has the largest number of public housing units in the country. But according to the New York City Housing Association, the federal government’s slow choke on funding has finally crushed its windpipe. It’s estimated that $40 billion is needed to improve living conditions—to fix water leaks, remove mold and lead paint, and replace nonfunctional heating systems—for public housing residents in the city. Proponents of the new law suggest that the Housing Preservation Trust promises to fix funding issues, noting the extra cash earmarked for Section 8 compared to Section 9. The average Section 8 voucher is $1,900 a month, an extra $650 per unit compared to the average unit in the public housing program, money that could be leveraged to borrow additional money from private investors to pay for repairs.

Salazar, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, said in a statement when the bill was signed:

Residents of the two dozen NYCHA developments in our Brooklyn district and public housing throughout New York City have been forced to wait decades for legislators to take serious action on urgently needed repairs to the aging NYCHA developments. . . . By creating a public housing preservation trust, this bill will allow NYCHA to secure the federal funding and additional financing needed to improve conditions in NYCHA developments without privatization. 

But it’s hard to say what distinguishes the Blueprint for Change from privatization. Similar programs have already wreaked havoc on public housing stock. Obama’s controversial Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) housing program also shifts funding from Section 9 to Section 8, pushing responsibility for the property into the hands of a private-public partnership and leveraging debt to reinvest in repairs. In New York, renovations of buildings switched to private management via RAD stalled; in some buildings, urgently needed repairs and mold mitigations were botched and covered up. Supporters say the new trust bill doesn’t actually turn management over to the private sector—technically, the city maintains ownership of the property. But decisions about how those 25,000 units get to spend their newfound money will now be made through a nine-member corporate board, with five seats filled by city employees and mayoral appointees and only four by public housing residents. It isn’t hard to guess how the Czar of Privatization and his deputies will vote.

The bill passed this year was more palatable than earlier versions to some because of an “opt-in” provision, whereby public housing residents can vote to consign their building to the trust. In her statement, Salazar added, “This marks the empowerment of NYCHA residents to collectively make decisions about their respective developments and manage their buildings.” But setting aside the fact that there were many residents who protested every version of this bill, nothing in the bill delineates any minimum voter participation, outreach, or information needed for residents to make a decision. There is also no way to opt out after you’ve opted in.

NYC-DSA members attempted to pressure Salazar into retracting the bill, noting in a petition with 198 signatures that she had previously agreed to deliberate with a citywide leadership committee on the topic. Their comments on the petition didn’t hold back: “Julia’s rogue, undemocratic actions have made this work more difficult and even pushed NYCHA DSA comrades out of DSA itself.”

Isaac KD, a member of the Brooklyn DSA Housing Working Group who asked that just his initials be used, said the Trust bill caused a kerfuffle within the ranks of NYC-DSA about whether they should remain neutral or denounce it outright. But before she sponsored the bill, there wasn’t really any kind of conversation happening between Salazar and the working group. “I think we rightfully felt that Salazar was doing this behind everyone’s back.”

Salazar has elsewhere demonstrated a commitment to tenants’ rights, advocating for reforms and participating in stoop watches alongside tenant unions. Her calculation that this deal is better than nothing indicates how the scope of political possibility has shriveled. It’s now impossible for some to imagine public funding for housing that isn’t financialized.

People’s Court

The strangulation of public housing and the financialization of real estate in the United States commenced in the 1970s amid a rush of urban renewal campaigns. Richard Nixon imposed a moratorium on new public housing construction in 1973; one year later, Gerald Ford prefigured what would become Section 8 with the Housing and Community Development Act, which shifted government attention away from public projects and toward subsidized “affordable” housing—which amounted to little more than a temporary tax write off for developers. Since then, federal funding for public housing has all but dried up, and rental properties have become an international financial asset with few competitive peers. In 2017, the United Nations estimated that 60 percent of all global investments are in real estate, 75 percent of which are in housing. With the rapid transference of wealth from renters to homeowners during the pandemic, this statistic has likely increased.

Given the scale of the resources needed, any substantive change in the housing system—proper funding for public projects, an increase in low-income housing construction, even the regulation or eradication of the predatory form of the market—will have to come from the federal government. But any dream of a prompt solution died with the Build Back Better Act. The Inflation Reduction Act includes a $1 billion grant program to make affordable housing more energy efficient—a paltry amount when spread over the whole country, and worse still compared to the $65 billion proposed for renovations and repairs of public housing in an earlier draft of the Build Back Better Act.

However, a resurgence in tenant organizing across the country is cause for hope. In the early days of the pandemic, some tenant unions’ membership tripled in just a few months. Through direct action, KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri, prevented 90 percent of all eviction hearings scheduled to take place in January 2021. Through stoop watches, court disruptions, and phone zaps, the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Brooklyn Eviction Defense, and other organizations have prevented evictions throughout New York City. Joel Feingold, co-founder of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, told me that no active member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union has been evicted since its 2013 charter. And in May 2022, the Los Angeles Tenants Union won a three-year fight to pressure city hall into using eminent domain to expropriate a 124-unit rental property from a slumlord and place it under city control, a move that expanded the scale of possibilities of what tenant unions can and should demand.

Today, many New York tenant organizers are directly challenging property relations in the housing market while fighting for the preservation of a public option and other radical alternatives. A strong defense can be a kind of offense: rent strikes have both protected tenants from evictions and extracted concessions. Recently, in the Brooklyn Rail, tenant organizer Holden Taylor called for a city-wide tenant union “beholden to—and only to—tenants.”

That sentiment reflects the spirit of 1970, when fifty-four working-class, primarily Latino families in New York City, furious about urban renewal projects that were leading to displacement, began organizing as Operation Move-In. They joined with the Puerto Rican students who would become El Comité to squat in two condemned buildings in Morningside Heights. Geographer Alexander Vasudevan writes that the campaign culminated that December when a coalition of activists from the Met Council on Housing, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and I Wor Kuen, a Chinese Marxist organization, convened a “Housing Crimes Trial.” After listening to tenants recount the hardships they had faced under slumlords, the court found the defendants in absentia, including Mayor John Lindsay, guilty of “criminal neglect, racism, and harassment.” The next day, “Judge” Jane Benedict of the Met Council told the New Yorker, “All rental housing in the city should pass into public ownership under tenant control.” Over 1,500 people were present for this piece of political theater that flipped the traditional eviction court proceeding on its head. While a number of the squatters were evicted, the risky demonstrations made significant gains: plans to condemn the buildings were scaled back, and over 400 of the squatters were allowed to remain. Other spaces that tenant organizers claimed were transformed into low-income cooperatives.

Vacant apartments in New York City today look different than those in the 1970s. Abandoned buildings have largely been replaced by pieds-à-terre for the rich. But tenants still have the potential to advance alternatives to the unsustainable conditions faced by today’s renters. Our vision for housing shouldn’t be narrowed by the torpor of the federal government.

Sam Russek is from Houston, Texas, and currently lives in New York. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, Curbed, and other places. His Twitter is @samrussek.