Tenant Organizers Are Running To Keep New Yorkers In Their Homes
After defeating long-time incumbents in Democratic primaries, progressive candidates are championing cancelling rent and banning evictions.
State Assembly candidate Marcela Mitaynes was evicted from her rent-stabilized childhood home in Brooklyn, New York, after a new owner purchased the building in 2006.
“I lost the home that I had shared with my family for over 30 years,” she told The Appeal. “My rent was only about $630, and I moved two blocks away to another two-bedroom apartment, paying a market rate of $1,400.”
Mitaynes subsequently became a tenants’ rights organizer and, last year, she helped pass the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. This past June, she won her primary against Félix Ortiz, who had represented New York’s 51st Assembly District since 1995.
Mitaynes and other housing justice advocates, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, are running to represent New Yorkers in the state legislature and U.S. Congress.
Like Mitaynes, candidate Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and president of her building’s tenants’ association, was impacted by New York’s ongoing housing crisis. Forrest began organizing tenants in her Brooklyn building in 2016, when their landlord, Joel Wiener, announced plans to convert their rent-stabilized apartments into condominiums. (As of 2017, Wiener’s net worth was $1 billion.) Forrest won her primary challenge against incumbent Walter Mosley for State Assembly.
Forrest and Mitaynes are advocating for an eviction moratorium and the cancellation of rent for the duration of the pandemic. Several other candidates for public office in New York are running on the same platform: Emily Gallagher and Zohran Kwame Mamdani for state Assembly; Jabari Brisport for state Senate; and Jamaal Bowman for U.S. Congress.
“Shelter is a core need,” said Gallagher, who was not endorsed by the DSA. She won her primary challenge against Joseph Lentol, who was first elected in the early 1970s.
“What this pandemic has been begging of us is to actually acknowledge that we are vulnerable animals that need certain things that we actually have to divorce from capitalism,” said Gallagher.
Before the pandemic, New York renters struggled to afford their homes. In 2018, a majority of households in New York State earning $30,000 or below spent more than half their income on rent, according to the NYU Furman Center. From December 2009 to December 2019, the number of single adults sleeping each night in New York City Department of Homeless Services shelters increased 143 percent from 7,700 to 18,700, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Evictions in New York City have historically fallen hardest on Black people, according to an analysis by the Community Service Society of New York. Between 2017 and 2019, renters who lived in majority Black zip codes were more than three times as likely to be evicted as tenants living in majority white zip codes. In 2019, almost all—93 percent—of heads-of-household in family shelters identified as Black or Hispanic, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Against this backdrop, New York City has more billionaires than any other city in the world, with a combined net worth of $424 billion dollars, according to Forbes. In fact, during the first three months of the pandemic, more than a hundred of the state’s billionaires became richer, according to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness and Health Care for America Now.
“There have been a lot of op-eds about [how] ‘New York City is dying,’” said Mamdani, the state assembly Democratic nominee for the 36th district. “While I fundamentally disagree with that, I do believe there are aspects of our city that must die and one of them is the rampant inequality of this city and of this state.”
Previously, Mamdani worked as a foreclosure prevention housing counselor, he told The Appeal. He defeated incumbent Aravella Simotas in the Democratic primary.
“My job was to put people’s lives together after they’d been broken into a million pieces,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, lawmakers in Washington and Albany have proposed legislation to cancel rent, but the bills haven’t moved, leaving renters with few protections or assistance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a federal temporary eviction moratorium for non-payment of rent for those who meet certain criteria. The moratorium temporarily halts evictions through December 31.
Corporate landlords, however, received federal aid through the Paycheck Protection Program. Landlords with Chestnut Holdings of New York, Inc.; Fairstead Management, LLC; and Langsam Property Services Corp. were included on a list of New York City’s 20 most prolific evictors for 2019, compiled by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. All three companies received PPP loans totaling between $3.35 million and $8 million, according to a ProPublica database of loan recipients.
“My priority, and I think it should be everybody’s priority, is to find a way to make sure people stay in their homes,” said Forrest. “We can cancel the debt; we can subsidize people’s rent.”
In New York, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act permits tenants to argue in housing court that they were financially impacted by COVID-19 and, therefore, should not be evicted for failure to pay rent. The Safe Harbor Act, contrary to the governor’s claims, is not an eviction moratorium, Mamdani explained.
“It’s an affirmative defense tenants can raise in court,” he said. “People are going to be kicked out of their homes.”
Even if the court blocks an eviction, the landlord can still try to recoup rental debt through other means, explained Jason Wu, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society and a trustee with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.
“They could get a monetary judgement, which means that they could potentially put a lien on your bank account, or garnish your wage, or report you to the credit bureau, and basically ruin you financially,” said Wu.
In July, state Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and state Senator Julia Salazar introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, which would cancel mortgage payments for small homeowners and rental payments for all tenants, starting from March 7 and ending 90 days after the state disaster emergency ends. Their proposal calls for the creation of a landlord relief fund to reimburse landlords who meet certain criteria.
To pay for rent cancellation, lawmakers can increase taxes on the wealthiest residents, housing justice advocates say.
But the governor has opposed a more progressive taxation system. Over the summer, Cuomo said wealthy New Yorkers would flee the state if their taxes were raised. (Claims of ‘Millionaire Tax Flight’ have been studied and repudiated.) “I literally talk to people all day long who are in their Hamptons house who also lived here, or in their Hudson Valley house or in their Connecticut weekend house,” he said.
Congressional candidate Bowman told The Appeal that lawmakers must raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers so the state can “provide more support to renters so they can stay in their homes.” He defeated incumbent Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary to represent New York’s 16th congressional district. Engel had been in Congress since 1989.
“While people are dying, we’re seeing millionaires and billionaires grow their wealth,” said Bowman. “So all we’re asking the government to do is to tax the wealthy—ensure that they pay their fair share to keep our society and democracy going.”