We are tenants in New York City. During the pandemic many of us were sick, lost our jobs, faced unexpected financial difficulties, separated from those we love, and forced to work low-paying jobs with a constant risk of exposure to COVID. Unsurprisingly, many of us are behind on rent. An eviction moratorium protected hundreds of thousands of us for much of the past two years. But 15 days into 2022 the governor allowed the moratorium to expire, dropping us back into a limbo of housing insecurity and reigniting the fear of imminent eviction at the hands of landlords, state courts, and marshals paid by the city. This tenant crisis will seriously fuck up the lives of some of the most vulnerable housed people in NYC. We must do what we can to help our neighbors stay in their homes.
What can we do? Some housing advocates are demanding that politicians address the crisis by passing laws to extend eviction protection and strengthen tenant’s rights. Relying on elected officials to protect us from eviction is misguided at best, and actively harmful at worst.
The governor failed to act in our interests when she allowed the eviction moratorium to expire without providing effective alternative protection for vulnerable tenants. Instead of real protection, the governor merely reopened the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has no remaining funds (and there’s no solid plan to make more available). Even the housing advocates that generally support legislative protections for tenants recognize this is unacceptable. Instead, they are pressuring the governor to pass a “Good Cause Eviction” law, which would grant a few more protections, such as limiting the maximum yearly rent increase and disallowing the most arbitrary methods landlords use to remove tenants from their homes.
While a Good Cause Eviction law would provide meaningful protections for some tenants, it is insufficient to address the tenant crisis. The only true solution to the tenant crisis is for people to control their own housing, and the only way for people to take control of their housing is to build tenant and community capacity to fight real estate capital. Let’s look at a few reasons how and why that is.
Tenant protections through legislation are insufficient, fleeting, and fickle. Even when housing advocates succeed in pressuring politicians to pass laws protecting tenants, these protections never challenge the situation we want to change—that private property owners ultimately control the housing of millions of people living in NYC. To the extent that regulations extend some small amount of control to tenants, these gains remain fragile because political priorities, parties, and representatives change. The expiration of the eviction moratorium is a particularly good example of this fragility, but New York’s recent “bail reform” fiasco and the imminent gutting of federally-protected abortion access are also excellent demonstrations of how countless hours of advocate effort lead to a political “success” that is ultimately fleeting and leaves vulnerable people facing the exact same difficulties they did before. Who can say whether any Good Cause (or similar) law will be repealed after being passed—victim of a coordinated media push, shifting political priorities, or broken campaign promises?
Why can’t we rely on politicians for meaningful, lasting change? Politicians aren’t on our side, because their interests align with property owners and landlords. Many politicians are landlords themselves, but even if they aren’t, they are on the landlords’ side. Politicians embody the logic of the liberal, capitalist system that places private property above the interests of tenants. For their alignment with the system, the capitalist class—who controls the resources that are required for success and advancement in our electoral system—rewards politicians with continued support.
While we mourn the expiration of the eviction moratorium, we also know it was always an insufficient solution to the tenant crisis because it never challenged the basic assumptions of liberalism and capitalism. That the governor did not act to extend the moratorium while the city suffered through the effects of the omicron variant—which brought the city it’s highest rates of COVID-19 infection as 2021 turned into 2022—demonstrates the governor’s true allegiances. The moratorium’s protections, while temporarily helpful for some tenants, acted to conserve existing property arrangements by preventing the vacancy crisis that would have resulted from hundreds of thousands of evictions at a time when record numbers of people were unemployed. Now that the governor is preparing for a primary challenge and needs the support of the capitalist class to win the election, the governor allowed the moratorium to expire in order to reassure the capitalists that their real estate and corporate investments are safe, because people will have to go back to work to pay rent.
Another reason that legislation will never meaningfully protect tenants is that many evictions happen outside of the law. We’ve seen this firsthand over the last two years, when eviction prohibition was the law. If a landlord wants a tenant out, there are many options outside of taking the tenant to housing court. Would you feel safe staying in your home if your landlord repeatedly threatened you with eviction and you didn’t know that you had the right to stay? Would you feel safe if your landlord superglued your locks? What if your landlord hid an actively harmful asbestos problem and your neighbors began to contract lung cancer? Cut the power to your home at random times for days on end? Assaulted you multiple times? Turned off your heat mid-winter? Called you sexist, racist, and/or homophobic names? Ripped out your toilet, all your kitchen cabinets, and sink, and threw them all in the street along with your mattress and clothing? These are all things that actually happened to tenants in Brooklyn while the state “protected” them from eviction. In many cases, these tenants called the police, who did nothing.
And finally, the police. Why would we, as tenants, choose to rely on the law to protect us when law enforcement protects what we seek to destroy? To solve the tenant crisis, we must liberate the private property of the landlords—the people who own homes they don’t live in—to make sure all people have secure access to housing. But the primary purpose of the police is to protect private property, and the police have enormous power to choose what laws are enforced. Like politicians and landlords, the police aren’t on our side, and you can be sure that they will do what they can to prevent us from controlling our own housing, no matter what the law says.
The best we can hope for from a Good Cause Eviction law is a respite from some forms of violence against tenants. This respite could give us space to organize for the only meaningful tenant protection—the end of capital-controlled residential real estate—but viewing Good Cause or any other law as an end in itself is shortsighted and unrealistic at best. At worst, expending enormous effort pressuring politicians to pass laws interrupts the possibility for lasting, meaningful change. Importantly, lobbying politicians diverts effort from the crucial work of building tenant and community capacity. Further, some people take a legislative win as a major victory (if not the end of the fight altogether), instead of a small ameliorative step that opens opportunity to push farther toward the abolition of private property.
We have limited capacity and resources, and because of the fallout from the pandemic there are more tenants than ever before interested in fighting with each other against landlords. We should use those resources in the smartest way we can, which is not lobbying elected officials. No matter if there are laws protecting us or not, we must have the community capacity to fight landlords. We are building this capacity by working with our neighbors to protect our housing. Join us.