Across the city, and particularly in neighborhoods being targeted by mega-landlords and developers for gentrification, tenants are facing massive rent increases. In many cases, these rent hikes are tantamount to eviction. Most of us are already struggling to get by at current rent levels. How can we be expected to afford to pay hundreds, if not thousands, more dollars a month?
The protections that tenants won and sustained throughout the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, through rent strikes and political pressure — like the eviction moratorium and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program — were a disruption to the status quo. Now, landlords are arguing that the rent hikes are necessary to recoup their “losses” from this disruption. They claim that they’ve been hurt by their inability to evict tenants or raise rents. They claim that the system is being unfair to them. They trot out their ideological fairy dust-phrase of “mom and pop landlords” and ruling class news outlets eat it up, casting sympathy for these hard hit landlord-next door types who do not exist! As the fine research team at JustFixNYC concluded:
The image of the “mom-and-pop” landlord is a convenient symbol for portraying landlords as blameless victims and obscuring the true power dynamics within the housing industry. Our findings arrived at this conclusively: Small “mom-and-pop” landlords do not represent the average owners of registered properties in NYC.
Landlords like to cast themselves as victims in order to invisibilize the structural exploitation that a landlord-tenant relationship necessarily entails: the landlord, through the entirely imposed and unnatural legal structure of private property, gets to demand rent, while the tenant must either pay, self-evict or face the police violence which protects that landlord’s private property rights.
Self-victimization is the landlord lobby’s discursive tool to publicly justify their further exploitation of tenants. But there are structural impositions as well. Throughout the pandemic there has been an escalation of a two decade long trend of corporate investment in multi-family rental buildings. It’s not a coincidence that Blackstone, a multi-trillion dollar investment firm, is the world’s largest landlord. As more and more large apartment buildings are gobbled up by massive investment firms, rent hikes become increasingly coordinated and targeted. Evictions are executed at a much higher rate in units owned by large, corporate landlords. This helps explain why so many tenants are feeling the squeeze at the same time.
The rent hikes are also intimately tied to the processes of gentrification. Evicting poor tenants from their homes, or forcing them to self-evict, to make way for wealthy, white tenants — in other words, gentrification — is a planned outcome. Neighborhoods are targeted for gentrification when real estate speculators, developers, city officials and landlords — often using sophisticated algorithms backed by millions of dollars of finance capital — find a “rent gap” in a neighborhood. As geographer Samuel Stein explains in his book, Capital City:
The key to understanding why some places gentrify is the amount of money that a landowner—who effectively holds a monopoly on all rents from a particular geographic location—can expect to generate from a given lot and the building atop it. Real estate speculators choose to invest in a particular location because they identify a gap between the rents that land currently offers and the potential future rents it might command if some action were taken, such as evicting long-term tenants, renovating neglected or unstylish properties, or demolishing and reconstructing buildings.
City planners, politicians, developers, landlords, the police and some homeowners participate eagerly in this organized displacement. Landlords pressure long-time tenants out through huge rent increases, purposefully neglected repairs and illegal harassment. Developers wield their political influence through massive campaign donations to win huge tax breaks and favorable zoning changes in targeted neighborhoods. The police step up enforcement of “quality of life” crimes — almost always disproportionately targeting Black and brown residents, and particularly unhoused tenants — to signal that the neighborhood is being primed for investment. Homeowners often welcome the flood of investment that will displace their neighbors because it means that their property values will increase.
Within this context, we should understand rent hikes as a predictable outcome in a deeply financialized, capitalist housing system which privileges private property and corporate profits above all else. We should understand rent hikes as a tool of the highly-sophisticated, algorithm-driven gentrification machine, used to force working class tenants to self-evict so that landlords can reap super-profits from new, wealthier, generally whiter, tenants.
Despite what landlords would like us to believe, it’s more evident than ever that our housing system is organized at every level to allow landlords to profit, price-gouge and exploit their tenants. Massive rent hikes are perfectly legal in most units in the city. No-cause evictions are legal. When landlords (frequently! and systematically!) utilize illegal tactics like harassment, negligence and disrepair to force tenants out, they either face no consequences, or in rare instances are confronted by the toothless and wildly understaffed HPD.
And due to targeted corporate pressure and state collusion, the number of rent-regulated units has been on a consistent decline for decades, leaving more and more tenants nakedly exposed to the cutthroat whims of the free market. Even in the remaining rent-stabilized apartments, the unelected Rent Guidelines Board is proposing untenable rent increases of up to 9%, which will affect over 2 million tenants.
Much of the deregulation of rent-stabilized units has been illegal. In 2019, the organized tenant movement won a major victory by closing some of the loopholes that allowed rent controlled apartments to become deregulated. However, landlords have continued to lie and illegally overcharge in apartments that should be rent-stabilized. City agencies, such as the DHCR — which tracks rent history on the assumption that landlords will accurately account for them — is incapable and uninterested in investigating these illegal actions or punishing landlords who flagrantly flaunt rent stabilization laws.
What is to be done?
Like most interactions with landlords, rent hikes can leave us feeling helpless. And alone, we are helpless to fight back. Without collective organization, we are powerless before the flood of real estate capital pouring into our neighborhoods, systematically searching for profit on every block and in every apartment.
However, as an organized tenant class, as neighbors fighting together, we can collectively resist landlord profiteering, and ultimately, challenge the rule of private property in our lives. Our power lies in our collective organization in our buildings, down our blocks, within our neighborhoods and across the city.
Talking to our neighbors about their situations and grievances with the landlord is the first step towards organizing our buildings. From there we can begin to build tenant associations (TAs) where residents can meet to strategize. In neighborhoods with active, militant tenant unions, like the Crown Heights Tenant Union or the Ridgewood Tenant Union, TAs can draw strength from collective neighborhood organization and experience. We (Brooklyn Eviction Defense) work with tenants across Brooklyn to organize their buildings, fight landlord harassment, conduct guerilla repairs and build tenant power.
There are a wide variety of tactics that tenants can collectively employ to beat their landlords. We can shame our landlords into action with public actions like rallies (including at their homes and offices), public propaganda and phone zaps. We can make alliances with neighborhood organizations and friendly politicians to put further pressure on our landlords. We can research our rent history to find out if we live in illegally deregulated apartments. We can collectively refuse to sign new leases or withhold our rent until the landlord comes to the bargaining table.
We can win. New York City has a rich history of tenant resistance to landlord exploitation, from the militant rent strikes of the 1910s to the Great Depression-era eviction defenses to 2019’s mass tenant organizing that won us the most progressive state-level tenant protections in a generation. Just last month, tenants in the Bronx fought back against a rent increase and are now on the verge of buying the apartment building from the landlord. As one tenant organizer said, “[Our landlord] underestimated our ability to communicate with one other, which was his biggest downfall.” We can and should take inspiration from tenant struggles across the country, like the Hillside Villa Tenants Association, which has been fighting for years to pressure the city of Los Angeles into expropriating the slumlord who owns their homes.
Landlords are already organized as a class. They exert a tremendous amount of influence in the halls of power through political donations and class organizations like the Real Estate Board of New York. Many of our elected representatives are landlords themselves. They benefit from the organized state violence which enforces their eviction notices and protects their private property rights — in other words, their right to exploit tenants for wanting a place to live. They understand that their interests are inverse to the interests of tenants: they want to raise rents, while we want to live in affordable apartments; they want to save money by ignoring repairs, while we want safe and habitable living spaces; they want to take advantage of opportunities to bring in wealthier tenants by evicting long-time residents, while we want to remain in our homes.
We can only match and exceed their power as class if we rise above their level of organization. It is a long road ahead, but there are immediate steps we can all take as tenants. Talk to your neighbors. Find common ground. Reach out to an autonomous tenant organization like Brooklyn Eviction Defense or your local tenant union.
The city is not protecting us. The landlords are exploiting us. And no one will organize for us. Only we, the tenants, through our collective power as an organized class, can fight back.
– Comrade Z