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New York’s Fight for the Right to Housing

From 2005 to 2017, New York lost over 425,000 flats with rents under $900 a month. Now, at the end of the Covid eviction ban, activists are fighting to save the city's housing from the next wave of destruction.

Credit: Busà Photography / Getty

For millions of New Yorkers, housing has been a chronic problem for decades. Like many cities, but perhaps with greater violence, the property industry juggernaut rampaged through communities, leaving destruction and displacement in its wake.

Entire working-class neighbourhoods have been upended and transformed, replaced by forests of high-rise, high-cost apartment blocks that line the waterfronts. People with low and moderate incomes have been abandoned by an out-of-control housing market, unable to afford to rent or buy in the place they call home. 30% of all tenants pay more than half their income in rent, and 78% of those with below-median incomes.

Between 2005 and 2017, the city lost over 425,000 apartments with rents under $900 a month. The cherished supply of rent-controlled apartments has also fallen by 88,518. The city’s very significant and vital stock of public housing has been starved of investment and despite the resulting disrepair, demand far outstrips supply. At least 60,000 people are homeless, becoming the target for criminalisation and moral panic. A disproportionate number of people most harmed by housing inequality are from ethnic minorities. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s much-touted attempts to reverse these trends have had limited success, contributing to his plummeting popularity.

All this was true before the pandemic, and is likely to bring a shudder of empathy from many in the UK. Now, we could be entering a new phase in New York’s housing tragedy. Barring last-minute political intervention, the current Covid eviction moratorium will expire at the end of August. Before the virus struck, there were already 230,000 New York households caught in the legal process that could lead to eviction. One well-informed housing advocate I spoke to reckons you can double that if the courts re-open on 1 September.

Thanks to previous energetic and successful grassroots campaigns, all tenants in the city who face losing their home have the right ‘to counsel’ and to be legally represented in court. This should, at least, slow down the eviction rate.  But as in the UK, many tenants don’t wait around for their case to be heard in court. The prospect of a dramatic upsurge in homelessness and housing misery, on both sides of the Atlantic, is very real.

The Campaign for Safe Apartments (CASA) is based in the Bronx. At a meeting on 8 July, one of its members, Mariesol Morales, said: ‘The pandemic may be over for rich people.  It’s not over for us.’ CASA works with some of the poorest people in the city and the country. Most are Latinos and African Americans who rent from often rapacious private landlords.

Before the multiple-shocks of the past sixteen months, they were most worried about how one of Mayor de Blasio’s policy initiatives (the re-zoning of Jerome Avenue) would reduce the number of jobs and truly affordable homes in the area. But the Bronx was hit ‘first and worst’ by the pandemic. Many people were compelled to put their health at risk by continuing to work in essential services; others lost income, hundreds their lives. Today, the prospect of a new wave of evictions is as worrying as a new wave of infections.

But CASA is getting ready to fight. Showing an urgency that appears lacking in other quarters, they are planning to launch a campaign demanding a further extension of the eviction moratorium, at least until the end of the year to allow the currently maladministered rental assistance programme to be distributed to tenants in need. Plans are afoot to target the politicians who seem to think there’s a vaccine for homelessness, and if necessary, to physically resist evictions.

But the threats facing CASA members are a fraction of the city’s looming housing disaster, which themselves reflect the historic failure of national housing policy. Again, this will ring a bell in the UK and many other countries.

Michael Kane is executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a tenant-led campaign group that advocates on behalf of 2.1 million low-income households around the US. Kane has been fighting for housing justice since the early 1970s and reflects on the road that has brought the US to the current situation and what might lie ahead.

‘Covid has revealed the fault lines of racial and class inequality in housing as never before,’ he says. ‘Only one in four US families who need housing assistance to survive are able to get it, and millions are homeless each year as a result. NAHT and CASA are in the vanguard of a growing movement to demand that the government provide real help with unaffordable rent, massive investment in new social housing, and funds to close the racial equity gap to finally realise housing as a human right for all.’

Achieving this will require a huge policy shift of the kind the embryonic Biden administration says it’s laying the ground for. I’m living in the 14th Congressional District of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attend the fortnightly online ‘Town Hall’ meetings she holds for the people she represents. There is something very refreshing about how openly she communicates with constituents, particularly from a UK perspective. Although she is enthusiastic about the ambitious Covid recovery infrastructure programme being pursued by President Biden, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t disguise that delivering it will be a huge political challenge in the face of entrenched vested interests who don’t want to pay more tax for things like public transport or truly affordable housing.

The next six months could be pivotal for deciding what kind of New York City and America emerge from the multiple traumas of the past sixteen. Taming the private property industry will be a critical part of that. As Samuel Stein writes, it’s in the balance: the pandemic has posed huge questions about the future of cities, with what he calls the ‘real estate state’ retreating, at least temporarily.

Someone from the property industry I spoke to recently told me that occupancy of New York City’s high-end towers I refer to above are below 20%, suggesting the possibility of the new urban wastelands I’ve discussed in relation to London. The kind of legislative agenda promised by President Biden has the potential to begin reversing the tide of government support for cities to be playgrounds for the rich.

But as in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the properly vultures are waiting. The fattest of them, Blackstone, announced a multi-billion dollar fund for ‘opportunistic property bets’ at the outset of the pandemic. They’ll be sharpening their talons at the prospect of more evictions and foreclosures, in New York City and beyond.

Waiting for a legislative rescue mission won’t save the millions of tenants around the world who are now more vulnerable than ever. That will take the kind of movement that propelled Black Lives Matter towards making racism an issue the establishment could no longer ignore, as it has institutional housing inequality. Hard as things have been for multi-ethnic, urban working-class communities, it would be a mistake to think they couldn’t get worse.

During a previous urban crisis in the 1970s, hundreds of homes in the Bronx were burned by profit-seeking, arsonist landlords, both a reality and a metaphor for how capitalism regards the human right to housing. But local grassroots movements fought to save buildings that have remained part of the lifeline of non-market housing in the city. Something similar will be needed now.