Constructing Tenant Energy with the Housing Justice for All Coalition 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. 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. 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!