Building tenant power with the Housing Justice for All Coalition

States should do anything they can to reduce the barrier between renters and homeowners—and fight for a society where all people are treated equally regardless of if they own property or not.

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SOURCEInequality.org
Image Credit: AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File

In 2010, Winsome Pendergrass needed a new home. She was a caregiver, living with and taking care of elderly adults in New York City. When they passed away, she found an apartment—for $1200 a month—in a convenient part of Ditmas Park. Paying reasonable rent in Flatbush, the mecca for Caribbean people in New York City, Pendergrass was content.

But within two years, her rent started increasing rapidly each year. It didn’t make any sense. Pendergrass showed her lease to a familiar local organization, New York Communities for Change. It became clear: she had a preferential rent, a deceptively low initial monthly cost which, through a loophole in existing rent stabilization laws, could be cruelly, quickly, but legally hiked.

Caring for herself and her daughter, Pendergrass took on two or three jobs just to stay afloat with rent. Her blood pressure spiked so high, she wound up in the hospital.

New York Communities for Change and the Housing Justice for All Coalition—a statewide group of more than 80 organizations—encouraged Pendergrass to share her story, to remind the government what they could do for tenants, and to catalyze change. After all, preferential rent was a tool of the greater toolbox of injustice: by raising rent, landlords can more easily move in someone else who could pay that high—often young, white tenants, accelerating gentrification.

In the same year as Pendergrass’ fated move, local organizer Cea Weaver was struck by how the foreclosure crisis plagued New York City renters—sowing dramatic inequality. Since landlords had overleveraged properties during the real estate boom, the crash jeopardized multifamily buildings like single family homes across the country. Landlords tried to get their buildings out of foreclosure by inflating rents to earn more income or refusing to make repairs or do maintenance. While prices and precarity got higher, quality of life vastly decreased.

Weaver and other housing organizers saw the foreclosure crisis as an opportunity to take buildings back from landlords and the banks and convert them into shared-equity cooperatives for tenants themselves. Unfortunately, bigger landlords saw the crisis of distressed real estate as an opportunity to buy up a lot of housing and raise rents all at once.

To end the boom-and-bust cycle of distressed real estate, the proliferation of private equity landlords, rent increases, tenant displacement, and homelessness, the Housing Justice for All Coalition formed. 

Starting in 2017, Pendergrass, Weaver, and many others came together as key members of this coalition, mobilizing to fight for New York’s tenants and renters. By 2019, the Coalition triumphed with the passage of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, one of the biggest expansions of rent control in 30 years. In 2020, they won the state’s first eviction moratorium and shut down housing courts for over a year. And in 2021, they won one of the strongest Emergency Rental Assistance Programs in the country. New York is on the vanguard of the national housing movement, and the Housing Justice for All Coalition believes their accomplishments signal great opportunity for other states.

With the expiration of the federal eviction moratorium looming, Inequality.org sat down with Pendergrass, now a tenant leader, and Weaver, Housing Justice for All’s Campaign Coordinator, to discuss their work, assess their legislative victories, and ponder the future of housing justice in the city, state, and nation. This interview has been edited for length & clarity.

Inequality.org: How does your coalition’s tenant-centered model help turn ideas into action and legislative victories? 

Winsome Pendergrass: This story is bigger than the city of New York—it is all over the state, from Buffalo to Long Island. And it is not only about people in apartments or basements: it is also people living out in rural areas, in trailer parks, retiring professors or teachers who just can’t afford the rent anymore. It was surprising to learn that they too were so affected. When you open up and start talking, you realize you’re not alone.

We also realized that politicians think us tenants don’t know what we need to. Researching and forming this coalition, we started getting so much information. Who has a connection to real estate and is a Senator? Who is funding politicians? REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York) gave Cuomo millions of dollars.

It was time for us to really come together. We connected the stories of tenants by dedicating a “testimony Tuesday” of every month to go to Albany and lobby and speak. We forced the Assemblymembers and Senators to hear the real cry of the tenants. Then we’d take it to the streets to let our voices be heard with some civil disobedience. 

Cea Weaver: We made elections and legislative advocacy days the terrain for the battle between tenants, renters and the real estate industry to be fought. We brought the fight out of Albany and into people’s districts directly; we didn’t just want to bother them in their offices. We said: “We can’t sleep in our homes; we’re coming to your homes.”

But what makes all of this function is that we aren’t just any one organization: we are a broad coalition of 80 grassroots organizations that represent people all across the state. Whenever elected officials would go home, they were faced with the depth of the housing crisis. So that combination of leveraging the political cycle, putting people’s stories front and center, and targeting people everywhere in the offices and the districts in a really grassroots way, and asking, “Who’s side are you on?” is what made the Coalition extremely successful. Stay in the know Subscribe to our newsletter

Inequality.org: What can we learn from your recent victories?

CW: The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 is one of the biggest expansions of rent control in 30 years, and it reversed decades of landlords’ attempts to weaken regulation. Not only did we win material protections for renters in that bloc, but we also won tenants’ rights to organize. Tenants have the right to renew their lease and to be protected against retaliation by their landlords, because we won protection in that law about tenant unions and barring retaliation. The problem with this is that it only covers buildings with 6 or more apartments in them, so there are millions of unregulated renters in New York who don’t get the benefit from the protections.

A factor that led to the victory was our country’s rising number of renters. For people like my parents, you could become homeowners by the time you were my age. But for people like me, homeownership isn’t really an option. The combination of student debt crisis, medical debt crisis, and the foreclosure crisis in 2010—when a lot of people my age were graduating from college—proved that the housing model of homeownership isn’t really working for people anymore.

This sort of class consciousness changing has been interesting, because for years the New York tenant movement was led by older women of color. But in 2019, we were able to build a multiracial, multigenerational bloc of people who collectively are fighting for the same things. There are people in the tenant movement like Winsome and there are people in the tenant movement like me. And you wouldn’t ordinarily expect us to be working so closely together on a project, but I think that’s a really important part of our success.

And I would be remiss not to mention how the Black Lives Matter movement has been a huge part of changing the conversation about what economic inequality and economic injustice looks like in our country. People called to cancel rent alongside defunding the NYPD. Winsome and I went to Occupy City Hall, where there was an encampment for weeks, and people were talking about the things that we really need to survive, like housing, health care, education, and the ways that a militarized police force takes away from that. So, the consciousness raising that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to economic inequality has been key to our legislative successes.

WP: What I have noticed is that even within this pandemic, when we dare to step out and demonstrate, the younger set of gentrifiers join the movement. Wherever the march took us [last year], gentrifiers were there, and they were not afraid or ashamed to say that they are in a space once occupied by people of color, that they are privileged to be in the space, but that they have our back and are standing with us. Last summer, everyone was saying the same thing: there were too many homeless people, too many black and brown people being disenfranchised.

For that, I’m pleased. Eviction is brutal: it is violent to throw people out on the street. I think it brings humanity a little closer, so we feel each other’s pain. That’s the reason why during the pandemic, we stand up, we shout as loud as we can, we did our car caravans and banner drops, honking, knocking on pots and pans, calling awareness to the fact that we should not have been forced to pay rent in a locked down city.

Inequality.org: Eviction moratoriums and housing court closures have been core public responses to housing insecurity throughout the pandemic. What can we expect from the looming expiration of the federal moratorium? What reforms need to be made to prevent a crush of evictions, now and into the future?

CW: It’s easy for landlords to get things like PPP loans or get an as-of-right tax abatement or tax exemption on their property and truly difficult for tenants to apply for rental assistance. The average time it takes a tenant to apply for the federal rental assistance program is between 45 minutes and 2 hours. The program is only available digitally and you can’t apply on paper. You have to provide—Winsome will tell you—around 25 million different documents and hand over your first born child. 

WP: It’s a sacrificial burden!

CW: It is so hard, and it’s so undignified to just get money to pay the rent. But for landlords—even with their management companies and bankers and staff—all they have to do is check a box to get their as-of-right tax abatement.

It’s not a very sexy thing to say, but the banal oppression of paperwork and a byzantine welfare system is a huge barrier to people getting the support they need, and it’s a huge cause of what’s going to create an eviction crisis. They make it so that you feel terrible by the time you get the opportunity to apply for assistance. It makes working class and poor people not believe in government, because government is traumatizing them. Which is bad, because government is the force that can fight inequality: it’s a tool we need to achieve redistribution of wealth.

But when people go to the welfare office and have a terrible time trying to apply for the emergency rental assistance program, it makes them less likely to want to vote or participate in New York Communities for Change or Housing Justice for All or engage in our democratic process. That’s what we meant when we said cancel rent: this needs to be automatic and easy for people. 

We also want an automatic right to renew your lease and Good Cause Eviction protections. Under Good Cause Eviction protections, tenants are given the benefit of the doubt in every eviction case. Landlords have to prove there’s a good reason to not renew the lease or to raise the rent. So that would extend protections to millions of people beyond those protected by rent control.

WP: It’s as if politicians are finding every possible way not to help renters or take people out of shelters or to house the homeless. These are human rights, especially in the richest state in America, where the wealthiest are untaxed and we are overtaxed, receiving no help during a pandemic. A lot of tenants are not savvy enough to use a computer or don’t have one. They don’t know how to start applying. And they need to afford basic necessities like medication and electricity. So why does our government make it so hard? They say they created a $2.4 billion dollar fund, but they make it so hard to access the money that people are still suffering.

Inequality.org: Moving forward, what kind of legislation are you prioritizing? How do you plan to balance your advocacy for bottom-up tenant empowerment with your advocacy for reining in the richest and the real estate industry? 

CW: There is a massive tax break for luxury developers called 421a, which Cuomo has rebranded “Affordable New York.” It produces a tremendous amount of luxury housing, and it sunsets next year in Albany, so we’re going to be fighting to ensure that program doesn’t get renewed. It costs us $3 billion a year: we could use that money to solve the homelessness crisis, to invest in social housing, Community Land Trusts, limited equity cooperatives, and things like that. And, of course, we need Good Cause Eviction as well. 

We need to walk and chew gum at the same time, targeting wealthy real estate developers who try to control power in our state at the same time as we raise the floor for renters through Good Cause Eviction and shared equity cooperatives.

WP: Albany has a lot to do for its citizens. The fight is still on, especially for the tenants out in the open in Buffalo, Binghamton, and Rochester. They need Good Cause in this session.

Inequality.org: What are common misconceptions you’d like to dispel about your coalition or the fight for housing justice?

CW: That there are these “mom-and-pop” landlords who claim tenants have all of this money and they are choosing not to pay rent—that they’re drug dealers, scam artists, or sex workers. It’s all really classist and racist. There is a tremendous “bad tenant” narrative about how tenants are destroying landlords’ property rights and therefore we need to get rid of the eviction moratorium. That’s not who tenants are, and even if they were, everyone has a right to a home.

The second misconception is that we can solve this crisis by tightening our belts. The way our economy is structured is that people who have property have wealth and equity and people who don’t, don’t. The austerity framework where we’re asking the people at the bottom to sacrifice the most is not going to solve the crisis or the pandemic.

WP: Even with the money that is set aside to help tenants, yes, rent is going to be paid, but we still are poorer because it goes right into the hands of the landlord, who now has money to acquire more property while we’re trying to get a job or two to pay for rent in the short-term. The money is not in our pockets; landlords are the ones benefiting from it. The government should make cooperative buildings easier for tenants to get into, help tenants be a part of something that they can call their own, and build generational wealth for their families.

And when it comes to people saying tenants destroy their properties—we do not do that! I take pride in wherever I live.

Inequality.org: What can the country learn from what you are doing in New York?

CW: Rent control! That’s the main thing people should be doing. Anything states can do to reduce the barrier between renters and homeowners, and to fight for a society where all people are treated equally regardless of if you own property or not—we’re making a lot of progress on that front in New York, and I hope other states can do the same. 

WP: People in other states are joining us, whether from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or Washington. We hear about how our horror stories were their horror stories, and they’d take them to their governors also. Kentucky won some money from their state to help tenants recently. Though we enjoy it, this work is tiring. Pushing for the moratorium was back-breaking but so good. At first, they didn’t give us a 12-month moratorium, but by pushing and demanding, they keep extending it every three months. 

We need more tenants, especially in public housing, to help put the pressure on. When we have the numbers with us, we can’t be discounted. Everyone’s story makes us stronger.

Finally, we want everyone to form a tenant group or organize within your building. Even if you don’t think there’s a problem in your building—there is! 

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