Who is for Tenants?
Toward a City-Wide Tenant Union
For tenants in New York City, the past six months have been dotted with crisis and catastrophe. Tenancy—which includes anyone who does not control their, or anyone else’s, housing—is inherently a precarious position, but recently this precarity has assumed a particular intensity. In January, the eviction moratorium was allowed to expire and the eviction mill of each New York borough began to churn at fever pitch. Good Cause Eviction legislation—intended to limit who can be evicted and how high rents can be increased—just recently failed; because of this, millions of renters remain unprotected from limitless speculation and “baseless” evictions. Rent hikes of astounding severity—100% upcharges; $1000 increases on 2-bedroom units—are reshaping the already perversely gentrified rental market. The Rent Guideline Board—as appointed by the mayor—voted to increase the rent of some 2.5 million rent-stabilized tenants by 3.25% and 5%—the largest leap in nearly a decade. Rounds of violent sweeps by City departments led by Mayor Eric Adams have harassed and dispossessed homeless tenants routinely. Now, that same (former cop) mayor—with the support of “socialist” politicians and policy gurus—has pushed through legislation for the (further) neoliberal financialization of the New York City Housing Authority; NYCHA tenant leaders have been understandably and vocally opposed.
What is the tenant movement in New York City and New York State doing in response? More significantly, what has the tenant movement done to build power to better engage in these struggles and those yet-to-come?
The eviction moratorium—which was fought for (over and over) and won (over and over) by a militant tenant movement behind the banner of CANCEL RENT—was allowed to expire on January 15 without serious pushback. This happened for many reasons, but one important one was the decision of the housing coalition, Housing Justice For All, to push for Good Cause legislation rather than fight for an extended moratorium; this was a false dilemma with constraints of their own making. Why exactly this was done is up for debate; the socialists employed by and leading HJ4A (and doing so, it’s important to note, within parameters set by their board and by their funders at Vocal NYC) argued that another extension to the moratorium was unlikely and that coalition energy would be better spent on Good Cause. Now 200,000+ tenants in New York City alone are on the cusp of eviction, in the eviction process of or already evicted. Tenants’ precarity and their dispossession cannot be understood as a temporary or fleeting crisis. This was a failing of political imagination and a regurgitation of austerity logic.
Meanwhile, the tenant movement—whose current center of gravity is the HJ4A coalition—could not produce the momentum to win Good Cause. The strategy to pursue this legislation single-mindedly instead of either an extended moratorium or explicit base-building campaigns was defended by tragically circular logic; we don’t have the base to push for a more expansive program was the sentiment voiced by HJ4A organizers and their nonprofit-director colleagues. The failing here was and is a lack of understanding of the basic relationship between a campaign and a base, between a program and a movement. As the moratorium’s expiration crept closer, the base’s calls for an extension—we are going to be evicted, shouted the mass of tenants at marches organized by HJ4A—undermined the coalition’s singular project. HJ4A and their sympathetic DSA politician allies constantly fumbled and posited Good Cause as the fitting response to the moratorium—despite the fact that the vast majority of tenants approaching eviction are there because of nonpayment and would not be protected by Good Cause.
The base needs not only to be better “listened to” (the quotation marks here represent the deeply liberal recognition politics that defines the coalition, like most nonprofits) but be understood and recognized as movement leadership. The role of a movement program is not to achieve whatever “deliverable” is determined by policy wonks and board members to be most achievable, given “base-size” in a given year or quarter. Rather, a program should both respond to and further the base’s calls; it should, particularly if led by socialists, push the boundaries of the possible and cultivate the base’s revolutionary imagination and potential.
“Good Cause” in many ways is a perfect embodiment of the state of the tenant movement, right down to syntax. Good Cause is the catchphrase for legislation that allows landlords to evict their tenants, but only for good cause. Of course, this implies that there are reasonable and acceptable causes for eviction. In other words, the “tenant movement” implicitly supports some forms of eviction, which is support of landlordism and the rights of private property more broadly. This is a failure, and one in part caused by the fact that the right wing of the tenant movement is composed of nonprofit landlords, who regularly evict their tenants for good cause. But, of course, such legislation does put a dent in the landlord class’s ability to evict.
Good Cause is absolutely one of the legislative reforms that the tenant movement needs to fight for. But such a reform, and a movement for that reform, must be always accompanied by principled struggle above and below. That is, there must also be an on-the-ground struggle against dispossession and for building tenant power through tenant associations and block councils; as well as the maximum—program struggle for the conditions in which the tenant movement’s horizon—working-class community control over how and where we live—can be reached, i.e. socialism.
At 3.25% for one-year leases and 5% for two-year leases, the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) just gave rent-stabilized tenants their largest rent increases since Michael Bloomberg was mayor. The RGB board is appointed by the mayor; this is how the real estate state is enacted in real-time. This is state-sponsored class war, as these increases will push out long-term and low-income tenants. The organized tenant movement—as led by nonprofits—put up little resistance. That movement has failed, now, both stabilized and non-stabilized tenants. Tenant organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation spoke up, sharply and with power, at the RGB’s pre-vote hearing. But without the support of an organized mass tenant base, the sentiments did little.
The violent sweeps of houseless communities across the city that briefly caused a media stir are now—without a cessation of their intensity, regularity, or depravity—overlooked, as other crises attract attention. Mutual aid groups have been struggling to respond to the sheer consistency and force with which these sweeps operate. Autonomous tenant organizations have joined with these mutual aid groups in rapid response efforts, direct actions, and rallies and have begun building out coalitions to operate more actively and effectively in solidarity with houseless tenants. This is a concerted effort amongst these groups to practice an expansive and revolutionary understanding of tenant and tenancy, to include anyone who does not control their own housing or that of anyone else. This definition of tenancy rejects the sort of division that capital and real estate rely on—between regulated and unregulated tenants; housed and unhoused tenants; market-rate and subsidized tenants; private-market tenants and public housing tenants—to hyper-exploit, to extract lavish rents, and to obscure reasonable—if not yet revolutionary—shared outrage.
What are organized socialists doing to stop the creeping financialization (which is always the production of new weak spots and vulnerabilities for marketization and exploitation) of public housing? It was a “socialist in office,” the DSA politician Julia Salazar, who sponsored the latest instance of financialization of public housing in New York—the Preservation Trust legislation. This despite the principled and vocal rejection of the trust by the DSA’s own NYCHA solidarity working group, as well as many prominent grassroots NYCHA tenant organizations. The nonprofits, and the nonprofit coalition, have been noticeably silent on the issue. Again, autonomous tenant organizations have been vocal in support of and in solidarity with public-housing tenants’ rejection of the Trust. The line of reasoning put forth by the policy wonks and “socialists” advocating for the trust is, as usual, one of pragmatism and practicality. The Trust is the only way to get money for repairs, they say. This boils down, to butcher Rosa Luxemburg’s aphorism, a framework of “Privatization or Barbarism,” as these experts claim that the only alternative to the Trust is the status quo and the ever more crumbling infrastructure and dire quality of life that define it. Again, this is a failure of imagination. It is the socialist’s responsibility to push past the status quo, to fight for socialism, not merely a different form of marketization.
What has the tenant movement been doing regarding today’s ungodly rent hikes, in the wake of the failure of Good Cause? Formally, not much. The coalition and nonprofits have pumped out social media posts but aside from that done little. There is talk of refocusing on tenant association organizing this summer. My own organization, Brooklyn Eviction Defense [BED], and other tenant organizations, like the Crown Heights Tenant Union, have continued our base-building and tenant organizing. BED, in just the past few months, has been working with and building out tenant associations across the borough in direct response to exorbitant rent hikes; tenants call us, describing these hikes and we respond by helping them to organize their buildings. We’ve crafted campaigns pressuring landlords and have launched rent strikes. We recently just won a rescinding of a building-wide rent hike. The HJ4A coalition argued that winning Good Cause would allow the wider tenant movement to organize more robustly. The Good Cause fight, however, was not coupled with any active on-the-ground organizing campaign. The autonomous tenant organizations, like the one I am a part of, and the Autonomous Tenant Union Network (ATUN), are not waiting for legislation to better our position. We are organizing in the conditions we’re presented with as best we can, with principle, with sharp political analysis, reflective critique, and an attention to the material and pressing needs of tenants. We are responding to crises, successfully defending families from state-sanctioned dispossession, confronting slumlord violence and building lasting power in tenant associations and homeless unions.
Our movement must understand the various particular struggles of the moment within a broader historical framework: There are more systemic and long-term developments that portend poorly for the wellbeing of tenants. One of these developments is the hyper-corporatization of New York City’s rental market. This has ratcheted up in each of the past few years, but also occurs within a broader trend of hyper-financialization—of New York and other cities across the world, and of the capitalist mode of production globally. The movement must attend to both the specific symptoms of corporatization. These include a marked decline in quality of life (as cost-cutting efficiency measures are instituted); a marked increase in dispossession and eviction (as firms identify potential profit from new gentrifying tenants); as well as the concentration of rental ownership into fewer and fewer hands, thus multiplying these mentioned effects.The movement must attend to the conditions that have paved the way for huge, multinational firms to buy up vast swaths of multi-family rental buildings.
We need an organization that can not only connect these disparate struggles so as not to replicate the divisions that capital and real estate require and exploit, but also proactively attend to more systemic developments. This means a tenant movement that is resolutely anti-parochial, one that is expansive, dynamic, connecting with other struggles, understanding that the ecosystemic issues that pervade this city require holistic movements—that is to say, that understands that tenants are not just tenants and that tenancy reaches into every demographic and pertains to every struggle. We need an organized formation that operates with a principled program, one not drawn up in boardrooms, which aims not at the bettering of relations between landlord and tenant but at the abolition of those very categories. What we need is a City-Wide Tenant Union. This would and will be an organization of tenants across New York City beholden to—and only to—tenants.
Such a project has both historical and contemporary precedents. We can look first at the City-Wide Tenants Council (CWTC), founded here in New York City in March 1936.The CWTC was, as Mark Naison writes, structured around “a federation of self-governing neighborhood tenant associations,” with a central office coordinating public relations, fundraising, legislation and education programs. The CWTC really emerged when 700 Lower East Side families were given eviction notices in the dead of winter, when their landlords—a group of savings banks—decided to board up their buildings rather than comply with the fire and sanitation regulations that were a part of the Multiple Dwellings Law, to be enforced as of January 1, 1937. The East Side Tenant Union, one of these federated tenant formations, led the response, launching picket lines around the banks in question and pressuring the mayor directly to hold off the evictions and guarantee the tenants’ quality of life in the meantime. A series of hearings were called at which the CWTC presented its program—one that attended to both the immediate crisis of the moment and a broader tenant movement. The latter included “a moratorium on evictions, the passage of laws prohibiting rent increases in buildings containing violations, the passage of a ‘prior lien’ law allowing the city to make repairs in tenements and charge them to landlords, the large-scale construction of low-rent public housing, and the passage of laws prohibiting racial discrimination in the renting of apartments or the fixing of rent levels.” This was a truly radical program and one to learn from. But more important is the relationship between the on-the-ground crisis work that tenant organizing so often entails with the larger program; this was made possible by the CWTC and its federated structure, which allowed the movement of the wider organization to be dictated by the needs and demands of organized tenants and not experts or board members.
But the CWTC was not without fault or flaw. One of the focal causes of its eventual dissolution was the porousness of its base; Naison writes: “Most tenants, City-Wide leaders recall, lost interest in the organization once their individual grievances were settled, and individual building organizations, except in large developments, generally disintegrated quickly.” What this teaches us is that our City-Wide Tenant Union must not devolve into clientelism or service. Tenants and their various, reasonable grievances must never be treated by organizers as problems to solve; tenants—working-class tenants specifically—must be the protagonists in this struggle over the city, over how and where we live, over how our labor and life-energies are expended and in whose hands the fruits of these labors end up. We tenants, with our various reasonable grievances, must be agents of change, whose power is only limited by the extent and form of our collective organization.
Moreover, our City-Wide Tenant Union must have a politics and program—for this is how the devolution into clientelism and service is avoided. This is not to say that we need to slap any sort of specific ideological label onto this not-yet established union—rather, it is to say that the union must have a democratic and base-accountable program created by its members, one that is contested and refined, and rooted in materialist analysis. Our City-Wide Union cannot pretend to operate outside of the scope of daily civic politics or broader historical developments. Often the most “radical” of organizing projects forgets the former; the staid nonprofit-led “movements” tend to obscure the latter.
Before looking at contemporary precedents, the preponderance of nonprofits and NGOs in social movements and in the NYC housing movement must be understood. The rise of nonprofits can be traced back to 1907, when the daughter of a railroad giant, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, used $70 million left to her by her father to start the Russell Sage Foundation; Rockefeller and Carnegie followed suit soon after. Nonprofits really started to expand amidst the radical tumult of the 1960s and the neoliberal retrenchment of the 1970s. In 1955, the American Association of Fundraising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy counted $7.7 billion in donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. That number grew to $39 billion in 1978 and lept to $175 billion in 1998. This blooming of nonprofitry coincided with, on one hand, the revolutionary (primarily decolonial) movement that peaked in 1968 and the withdrawal of the state from social-welfare programs. The rise of nonprofits and NGOs provided a “safe outlet” for the idealism and outrage of young would-be-revolutionaries, who are soon presented with the bureaucratic gridlock that defines the NPIC. At the same time, the emergence of nonprofits—now the third largest employment sector in the US!—filled some of the gap left by a delinquent state: that is, providing many of the services that the state at its various levels provided through the Keynesian period. Welfare, public housing, robust municipal services, municipal health care, public education, elder care—have been either fully privatized (with the burden of cost falling squarely on working-class shoulders) or outsourced to nonprofits.
Nonprofits are a veil obscuring the social relations that produce the misery they claim to ameliorate. As Dylan Rodriguez writes: “the NPIC's (and by extension the establishment Left's) commitment to maintaining the essential social and political structures of civil society (meaning institutions, as well as ways of thinking) reproduces and enables the most vicious and insidious forms of state and state-sanctioned oppression” (Incite! 2006). Nonprofits, even if they have radical language in their charters—which they pretty much always do—cannot confront, much less challenge, the regimes that underpin the misery they attend to, because those regimes—private property, landlordism, rent-extraction, hierarchy, bureaucracy, deliverables—sit at the foundation of each nonprofit’s existence. If the nonprofits are the fish, capitalism is the fishbowl; of course the fish cannot imagine that the bowl needs shattering.
The transfer of tenant energy in NYC from 2020’s Cancel Rent movement to the Good Cause campaign is emblematic of this; the Cancel Rent movement was, in the end, axed by nonprofits, both because too many of them are landlords but also because of the structurally-imposed limitations of the nonprofit-led movement. But the tenants wanted, needed Cancel Rent; the conditions which we faced (conditions that have not markedly improved) expressed contradictions sharp enough to be incomprehensible by projects of liberal reformism. The push for Cancel Rent created the eviction moratorium; it is no wonder that nonprofits, focused on deliverables, could not understand the moratorium to be anything more than an aberration. We need to understand the cessation of legal evictions as a portent of the world we can create.1 The housing nonprofits—particularly Legal Aid Society—played an instrumental role in the suppression of Cancel Rent and in the eventual expiration of the moratorium.
To understand how the broad trend of nonprofitry pertains to housing here in New York and how and why the nonprofits that operate as the center of gravity in New York’s tenant movement are not fit for the task at hand, we have to understand how they arose and why they take the shape and size they do. Specifically, we have to look at New York City after its 1975 fiscal crisis. As the city careened into bankruptcy and as the NYPD was actively producing propaganda to scare off would-be tourists, there was a mass exodus of all sorts of people from the five boroughs, including landlords who thought their investments untenable. Abandonment in 1975 resulted in the loss of over 40,000 housing units; between 1970 and 1983, New York City lost over 310,000 units as a result of abandonment and demolition. The city lost 800,000 residents in the 1970s.
This mass dereliction led to the rise of urban homesteaders, individuals and community groups which, with the rescinding of municipal support, assumed practical stewardship over the homes and neighborhoods left abandoned. Many housing nonprofits and Community Development Corporations (CDC’s) have their roots in these practices. UHAB—the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board—is perfectly exemplary of this.
At this time, the city began assuming ownership of abandoned buildings through foreclosure processes—by 1979 over 60,000 units in vacant buildings and an additional 40,000 in occupied or semi-occupied buildings fell under the auspices of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which became the second largest landlord in the city. The municipal government holding onto and managing these properties was a political nonstarter; we had by then already begun to see the long-siege of disinvestment attacks that would largely dismantle public housing. As housing prices and investor-confidence slowly rebounded, the city began conveying these properties to nonprofit and for-profit developers at no or minimal costs.
This was a critical development. Many housing organizations, often previously focused on organizing—that is, the building of tenant power through collective and community organization—pivoted to meet the requirements that HPD established to assume ownership of these in rem buildings (named after the legal action that gave the city title to these units). Organizations founded in the politics of autonomy, community, and homesteading tweaked their trajectories to meet the pressing material needs of their people. Many of these nonprofits, following this initial pivot, blossomed into bureaucratized, bloated, parochial, and often-corrupt landlord firms. When your once-radical organization becomes a landlord, it then has to start doing what landlords do. Which means: attend to the dictates of property and value, collect rent, evict and also financialize. Landlords these days, with tears in their eyes, want to be called “housing providers”—nonprofits, wanting to be housing providers, became landlords.
As Ronald Lawson writes, those involved in these organizations felt the effect of these developments viscerally: “Doug Moritz, the leader of Los Sures, one of the best-known and most successful neighborhood organizations, whose budget eventually topped $6 million, commented retrospectively in 1980 that the funded programs ‘diverted us from organizing, from an educational thrust. We sacrificed our local base, as we failed to educate the new tenants who moved in, and came to be seen—rightly—as part of the establishment.’ A board member of ANHD [Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development] stated that ‘collectively we lost the involvement of local people, and instead adopted a contractor relationship with only a few buildings. As a result we can no longer say that we represent, or are even in touch with, the neighborhoods.’”
But it’s not just as if the broader tenant movement drifted along this way with these institutionalizing organizations. Lawson writes: “Many of the neighborhood organizations stopped organizing tenants just when the rent strike strategy of spending rents on services and repairs, and thus seizing de facto control of buildings, was being widely accepted and could have become a way of building considerable strength at the grass roots and forcing input to policy.” Literally—just like during 2020, when a militant rent strike movement pushed for the actual cancellation of rent—the nonprofits, with the political and fiscal clout they had accumulated, remained inactive, or actively-suppressed confrontational tenant struggles. This is why we needed, and now still need, a principled tenant movement that is for, and only for, tenants. We need a tenant movement whose rank-and-file organizers, whose grassroots leaders are integrated into a democratic and principled organization, not one led by bosses of nonprofits (where they can be fired for “agitation”).
We can look at the work of the Los Angeles Tenant Union (LATU) for contemporary inspiration. Though our landscapes differ and our cities are often contrasted there is much to be learned from our well-organized comrades out west. LATU is a “tenant-led movement,” organized through fourteen local chapters and funded fully through membership dues ($5 a month for employed members, $1 for unemployed). In an organizational manifesto of sorts, cofounder of the union Tracey Jean Rosenthal describes its structure and origins: “[We] build up from tenants’ associations in buildings, to local chapters in neighborhoods, to our union which spans the city.” LATU organizers have since founded the Autonomous Tenant Union Network (ATUN), a nationwide formation that is holding its first in-person convention this summer. Rosenthal emphasizes that LATU focuses its work on “tenants rather than housing” and that its members are “tenant organizers not housing activists.” These distinctions evince a strong program, one that is not only outward facing (i.e. composed of radical dreams for society) but that attends to the organization’s structures and functions as well. There is democracy both in its goals and its movements.
LATU wages battles on multiple scales and in disparate locations but has, through its structure and program, the capacity to connect these struggles. We can see this in LATU’s eviction defense occupations, wherein tenants from various tenant associations pack their fellow tenant’s front lawn and defy a sheriff's violence; we can see this in their emerging strength in organizing corporate portfolios, and particularly in organizing against the systematic dispossession practiced by predatory corporations like K3 Holdings. We see this also in Hillside Villa Tenant Association’s three year-struggle that, recently, culminated in tremendous victory: LA’s city council voted to begin the process to buy the building, taking it away from its slumlord, Tom Botz. Botz had begun inflicting eviction-synonymous rent hikes on the mostly low-income tenants. These are just snapshots but what is beautiful and important here is the way in which these fights are connected; not only by a common program and organization, but by a mode of sociality—a set, as the K3 Tenant Council puts it, of “new social relations and forms of solidarity that point to more liberating, celebratory, and communal ways of being together and reproducing our lives.”
The horizon of the tenant movement is working-class control over how and where we live. What this means is not just freedom from debilitating rents and the dispossessing violence of landlordism but the freedom to determine democratically how our communities, neighborhoods, buildings and blocks are arranged and organized. This means the freedom to consciously and collectively determine conditions that nowadays seem always controlled by a distant ‘they’—they’re building a new luxury tower, they’re tearing down the public library, they’ve defunded public education again. But this also means the capacity to relate to each other, to our neighbors and comrades, with our fuller humanity. Building a City-Wide Tenant Union is not just about taking a step toward socialism or engaging more consciously, and more adeptly, in historical struggles—though it is both of these—but it’s about creating actual democracy in our daily lives. It’s about the collective and structural assumption of stewardship, not just to the places in which we live but also to the historical moments, to the communities and the ecosystems around us, to our relations with each other despite distance or difference. Toward a City-Wide Tenant Union so that we can, with our neighbors, build power and recreate the many worlds in which we live.
The eviction moratorium—despite the cries of landlords and their water-holders on twitter and Youtube—showed us two things! One, is that a world without legal evictions—without marshals making hundreds of thousands of dollars to displace poor tenants—is possible, and not even distantly possible but practical. Two, that such a world is not sufficient. As we saw, throughout the moratorium, tenants were pushed out via evictions—illegal evictions, harassment, negligence, rent hikes—that exist outside of the legal-standard definition. Dispossession as a force within regimes of capital accumulation—i.e. the coercion of competition and the psychopathography of greed that capitalism breeds—does not halt because one form or another is outlawed.