New York tenants rise up for fair housing
Metropolitan Council on Housing via Facebook

A coalition of housing, health, and tax-the-rich organizations across New York State rang in the New Year with a clear message to Governor Cuomo that tenants’ needs must be a priority.

On Jan. 3, in the early hours of the cold winter morning, activists from Rochester, New York City, Long Island, Troy, and other towns, including Albany itself, began making their way to the capitol where Gov. Cuomo would be making his State of the State remarks.

After many hours on the road, members and leaders from Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY), Metropolitan Council on Housing, Tenants PAC, Take Back the Land Rochester, New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Citizen Action of New York, Community Voices Heard (CVH), Housing Justice for All, NYC Democratic Socialists of America, Alliance for Tenant Power,, and other organizations began piling out of the buses and rallied together over hot cups of coffee at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany.

“Make some noise, upstate people! Make some noise downstate people!” GG Morgan of VOCAL-NY shouted, rousing the spirits of the waking assembly. “[This is] the army of justice! We’re all soldiers in here!”

“We have 88,000 homeless statewide” even though “New York is one of the richest states [with] Wall Street, millionaires, real estate developers.” Morgan said “Governor Cuomo should “aggressively invest and support housing” and “invest in rental assistance, so that people can afford to pay their rent. “We also want to let him know: the billionaires and the millionaires need to pay their fair share. We [shouldn’t have to] carry the burden. That’s not right.

“We are here to also demand that we end the vacancy bonus to landlords and fix preferential rents,” said one activist named Maria. “We are losing tens of thousands of rent regulated units every year. If things keep going the way they’re going, we will be without any regulated housing in the next 20 years.”

A couple weeks prior, the New York City based Real Rent Reform coalition, which includes Metropolitan Council on Housing and Tenants PAC, discussed three bills they are fighting to get out of committee in the state Senate.

S.1593 would eliminate the vacancy bonus, an automatic 20 percent raise in rent after a tenant leaves — or is forced out. The preferential rent scam, as an article from The Tenant / Inquilino explains, is rent offered to a tenant below the inflated “official” rent, which the tenant may not know about. On the next lease, the landlord tells the tenant she has to pay the “official” rent,” “plus whatever increase is allowed by the local Rent Guidelines Board. This allows landlords to rapidly displace tenants and push the rent closer to the $2,700 “deregulation threshold.

S.6527 would “[prohibit] an owner from adjusting the amount of preferential rent upon the renewal of a lease,” in effect transforming the preferential rent into the real rent. S.3482 would eliminate the deregulation threshold itself.

“We’re tired of being pushed out, kicked out, [and] being displaced,” exclaimed Morgan at the church. “Housing is not a luxury; housing is a human right!”

Stuffing hand warmers and granola bars into their pockets, they marched out of the church and into the street, making their way to the Capitol building shouting, “Hey Cuomo, get off it! Put people over profit!”

Spreading out their banners reading “#CuomosHousingCrisis” and “TAX THE RICH DEFEND THE POOR,” the people filled the entrance to the capitol building and began making their speeches outside, highlighting major points of the coalition’s statewide demands.

“What I wanna talk about is closing loopholes,” said Kawanais Smith from Take Back the Land Rochester. “In Rochester, the majority of the people live in a 30-day tenancy which means landlords can get rid of them at any time for any reason. So we want a good cause protection law, eviction protection law, and we want a housing court all over New York State,” she said. “Yesterday I took a reporter through my apartment building, and I was surprised to see that people actually had icicles in their apartment. … We need to have more habitable conditions and we need to be able to take these landlords to court to make sure that they take care of their property the way that they should. … [Gov. Cuomo] needs to put more interest on people and not the development corporations.

“If we had more affordable housing there would be less homelessness,” she added.” It’s so sad that there are some people that get up and go to work every day and they have to come home to a shelter.”

NYCC activist TJ Silver said homelessness and unaffordable housing is also a problem on Long Island. “[The governor] needs to come out here and talk to the people of the State!” “We are in this fix because of him. … We need housing now! How can you run for President when you [weren’t] a good Governor?” she questioned. “If he doesn’t look out for us …  we will not look out for him.”

“Give $1 billion to NYCHA!” Wagner Houses NYCHA resident and CVH leader Agnes Rivera told Cuomo, citing the #Peoples NYCHA Plan demands. “It’s [as] cold in our homes as it is outside! Stop sitting on the money and give us new boilers!” she cried out. “Give us livable homes! Act now before we die!”

Williams than announced a core feature of the day’s actions: “Many of us right here are now going to block the doors to the halls of power in Albany to make sure that homeless people, and low income people, and Black and Brown people, that vulnerable New Yorkers’ voices are heard. We will put our bodies up against the state. We put our bodies in place of justice because this is right. … Let’s go!”

For the next 30 minutes, 25 coalition members linked arms and blocked the entrance to the capitol building. “1,2,3,4 tax the rich and house the poor! 5,6,7,8 Cuomo works for real estate!,” people chanted as the Albany police broke up the human blockade, taking them into custody.

“It was incredible for me to be part of such a charged up, uncompromising, and focused group of tenants,” Marina Metalios of Tenants PAC later told People’s World. “This action brought together a broad and deep representation of the tenant movement in what is a new unification of housing activists. This group also seems more radical,” she added. “I’m excited about the change we will demand and create this year.”

“You are the persons who are going to create the better future,” Williams told activists as they settled into their bus seats. “One day in the future … homelessness, housing insecurity, all these things in our society that are bad, will be barbaric relics of a past that … our ancestors to come will not be able to understand, and it’ll be because of us,” he said.


Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.