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Lessons From New York’s Housing Movement

Housing campaigners in New York have won an eviction ban extension until January 2022. Now the focus is on changing the system to protect against evictions for good.

People protest for a moratorium on evictions on 4 August 2021 in New York City. Credit: Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

When Hurricane Ida struck at the end of August, amidst a media and political frenzy, New York was placed under a state of emergency. But there’s been a housing emergency here for decades – a tragic sign of which was that several people who drowned on 1 September were trapped in illegally converted basements, without windows or other means of escape, because it was the only home they could afford.

When I wrote for Tribune in July, New York City was bracing itself for things to get worse. The various eviction moratoria and other forms of Covid relief were coming to an end, with the prospect of a huge rise in homelessness, but after sixteen months of the pandemic and several years of intense but often successful struggle behind them, local campaigners seemed understandably fatigued.

Then the mood changed. Political events in August energised the movement, which intensified when the Supreme Court declared the federal eviction ban unlawful. Seizing the moment, the state-wide Housing Justice for All (HJ4A) alliance led a counter-offensive, demanding more protections for tenants. On the same night Ida arrived, the New York State Assembly debated—and comfortably passed—a renewed eviction moratorium set to last until 15 January 2022.

Although it was twice extended under campaign pressure, when the UK’s pandemic eviction ban ended on 31 May, it was met with barely a whimper. In New York, it was met with a roar. There are more legal challenges ahead, but assuming the ban stays in place, New York tenants will have had some degree of protection from eviction for 23 months.

This is a remarkable achievement. First and foremost, it will have kept people in their homes during a pandemic. But it’s also a fundamental challenge to one of the tenets of capitalism – that the rights of landlords always trump those of tenants.

Several things contributed to this latest victory, which seemed unlikely back in July. Some may be time and place specific, but there are also lessons for housing justice campaigns elsewhere.

New York has a particularly well-organised tenant and housing movement. There are eighty separate groups affiliated to HJ4A, predominantly in the hotbed of New York City, but spread all over the state, which is about the size of England, with a population of 20 million. Unlike the UK, many of them have paid staff. Although there are downsides, this undoubtedly helps sustain organisational effort. But this builds on a record of success, combined with an energy and enthusiasm that sometimes magnifies sheer numbers.

On 31 August, HJ4A, together with a group of faith leaders, staged its fifth public protest during the month. About 300 people rallied outside the offices of the Marshalls who would carry out evictions, then marched slowly and noisily through the streets of midtown Manhattan, before blocking part of 3rd Avenue, outside the state Governor’s office. There was a defiant, confident mood. The chants ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ and ‘When we fight, we win!’ carried real conviction.

It was the second time during the month the Governor’s office was the protest site. The first time (on 4 August), the target was the embattled Andrew Cuomo. There was some debate about whether exploiting a political crisis caused by sexual misconduct was a good tactic. But as one HJ4A leader explained, it was about recognising and taking the opportunity, and as a speaker at the rally said, Cuomo’s personal abusive behaviour reflected his political abuse of the state’s tenants, particularly in the appalling mismanagement of the Emergency Rental Assistance Programme (ERAP), intended to help keep people in their homes. Housing campaigners successfully used the huge media interest in the scandal and shifted the story towards the pending eviction crisis. They were also able to leverage political support from opponents of Cuomo (from within his own party), who were only too happy to add failure on housing to his charge sheet.

On 10 August, Cuomo resigned and the campaign immediately shifted attention to his replacement, Kathy Hochul, whose anxiety to distance herself from the previous administration created a ‘moment of pressure’ to win more concessions. But this agility was only possible because of the years patiently spent building the base of the state’s housing movement. HJ4A and its affiliates employ a range of coordinated mechanisms for doing this, embracing political lobbying, traditional and social media campaigns, regular meetings, fund-raising and the more painstaking work of door-knocking and phone banking. Much of this activity has, of course, shifted online, but this does not appear to have significantly impeded the effort.

All of this comes with a disciplined, strategic, highly focused approach, in which each step is carefully planned. This includes the use of civil disobedience. On 17 August, another H4JA anti-eviction protest led to the arrest of 17 campaigners, including several elected politicians. But this had all been discussed and agreed in advance, to achieve maximum effect. There are already preparations being made for eviction blockades if and when it becomes necessary, and many New York tenants went on rent strike during the height of the pandemic.

Taken in isolation, none of these things are unique to New York. However, there are some factors that are more so. Underlying the political tension created around housing struggles is the broader one between the movement and the political establishment, particularly the Democratic Party. The well-publicised election of ‘The Squad’ reflects a deeper realignment of US left politics. But as with the Labour Party in the UK, there is strong resistance to change from the political status quo.

Few in New York’s housing movement hold illusions in the Democratic Party, and this makes it easier to operate on its own terms within the system, stemming from a realistic, sophisticated analysis of the political landscape. These qualities have sometimes been lacking in the UK, where criticisms of national and local housing policies can be blunted by Labour Party loyalty. Similarly, although the US left is often deeply divided, in New York, there has been a unity of purpose around housing others could learn from. They have also more successfully linked housing to the fight against racism.

There are difficult times ahead. The New York anti-eviction measures have already been legally challenged by the real estate lobby and in any event will lapse in four months, leaving thousands of tenants at renewed risk of homelessness. But the New York housing movement is acutely aware of the need to broaden its campaign beyond fire-fighting evictions. They want to win some of the tenants’ rights sometimes taken for granted elsewhere.

Removing the constant eviction threat means systemic change. President Biden isn’t going to deliver this, but with pressure from below, he is trying to pass a massive investment package that could significantly change the future for working class Americans. Crafted by Bernie Sanders, it includes $330 billion for housing, with an unprecedented $80 billion for public housing which, in the US and everywhere, is the key to lasting housing reform. But the corporate real estate and fossil fuel industries and their political lackeys are planning to wreck Biden’s plan. There will be a huge political battle in the coming months – and housing campaigns will make sure they’re part of it.