The Shape of Things to Come

Having been here less than two weeks, it’s difficult to accurately assess where things are going with New York City’s deeply troubled housing situation. But there seems to be an uneasy hiatus, that perhaps reflects the mood of the city and nation as a whole.

There are some numbers that give an indication of what’s in store. Before the pandemic, there were 230,000 households in the legal pipework that could lead to eviction. One of my well-informed sources reckons you can easily double that when the NYC housing courts reopen, currently scheduled for the end of August. But that’s a conservative estimate and he thinks it’s possible that, in New York State as a whole, there could be one million households facing homelessness by the end of the year.

The main reason for this, of course, is that people have lost income, through no fault of their own, during the pandemic and as a result, have missed rent payments. Another of my sources thinks this could amount to $2 billion in rent arrears. Although there is federal government aid on offer to offset this figure, it is beset with bureaucratic inertia and may still be insufficient to prevent a dramatic rise in evictions and homelessness.

It’s likely the courts will be heavily clogged up when they do reopen. As well as sheer weight of numbers, not long ago, NYC housing campaigners won the “right to counsel”, meaning tenants can be properly legally represented in court, regardless of income. This should prevent the routine rubber-stamping of evictions, but won’t help the many tenants who won’t wait around for their day in court. (Apparently, another feature of the NYC COVID-rent crisis is people abandoning their homes and doubling-up with family members to avoid arrears and damaging credit ratings, but with obvious risks to personal relationships.)

All this comes on top of a deep-rooted, decades long policy failure that has afflicted all US cities, but particularly those with the most dysfunctional, overheated housing markets. The New York City skyline, like London’s, is testament to a system that long-since turned its back on those in housing need and mocks the at least 60,000 New Yorkers who are homeless. Another sign of the absurdity of current policy is that providing shelter accommodation to the homeless has become a $4 billion industry in NYC.

I was reflecting on all this with a very well known academic yesterday (name withheld to protect the innocent) and we were comparing the obscene towers that line the East River and the Thames with 18th century follies. He argues that, like the nouveau riche of industrial capitalism, today’s property speculators don’t care whether the buildings they erect are used. Their purpose is mostly to absorb excess capital, exactly as Marx described it, with the additional benefit of imposing an ideological phallus on the city.

This self-pleasuring is horribly illustrated by the mid-air swimming pool linking two “luxury” apartment blocks in so called “VNEB” in London (significantly, adjacent to the US embassy).

So where does NYC housing go from here? Local politics, like national, is fluid, tense and chaotic. There are certainly signs of the insurgent left, but also a concerted effort to restore the old order within the Democratic Party. Within this dynamic, housing campaigners strive to coalesce around core demands, but as in the UK, that’s easier said than done, particularly at a time when people and organisations are only cautiously emerging from pandemic isolation. But that’s a concern when there’s a ticking bomb of evictions. I’ll watch this space, but hope it’s soon filled.

There are signs of hope though. A tenant-led campaign organisation I’ve been associated with for many years, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) held its online national conference last week. For many years, despite its brilliant, resilient spirit, NAHT has felt like a voice in the wilderness, skirmishing around the edges of mainstream politics. On Wednesday, it had two members of “The Squad” speaking, Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. They congratulated NAHT delegates for their long struggle, which has contributed to the introduction in Congress of the Tenant Empowerment Act, a piece of legislation that would give low-income tenants far more protection from rapacious landlords. Pressley and Tlaib also referred to President Biden’s huge infrastructure plan which, they say, could include a significant investment in housing, with a possible $70 billion for public (i.e. council) housing, an inconceivable prospect until recently.

So, as ever in this place, there is cause for both optimism and pessimism. Ultimately, the housing fate of New York City is tied to that of the nation and both could be significantly shaped within the next six months. If political action doesn’t quickly lead to real improvements in the lives of working class people, not only could we see a housing catastrophe the likes of which hasn’t been seen here since the 1930s, but the forces of reaction (which haven’t gone away) could return with a vengeance.

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