Housing: Them and Us

Last Wednesday (1st September), in the state capital Albany, the New York Assembly held an extraordinary – in every sense – session to debate extending the state’s eviction moratorium.  Watching it was an object lesson in “them and us” attitudes to housing and its place in our society.  Even after years of trying, I sometimes find it hard to understand what some people “don’t get” about housing, including those I’d expect to know better.  But if I was teaching a class on how the universal human need for shelter becomes an ideological totem and political weapon, I’d show the Albany debate.

All parliamentary style politics has performative elements and I’m sure there was a fair amount of playing to the (empty) gallery going on.  Also – and this is a critical point – although the masses weren’t literally at the Albany gates, as they have been in the past, August has been a very active month for New York housing campaigns.  The broad alliance under the umbrella “Housing Justice for All” has overcome the understandable fatigue of the last 18 months and staged a series of high-profile protests that have cranked-up the pressure on politicians to act.  They could feel the heat on their necks, including the new Governor, Kathy Hochul, keen to do whatever she can to distance herself from the scandal of the previous regime. 

It’s important to understand the dynamics of New York politics (although this is a pattern repeated in many other parts of the US).  The huge, diverse, population centred around New York City does not reflect the composition of other areas, which are more rural, white and conservative.  But it’s the cities, including places like Buffalo (which recently elected a socialist mayor) and Rochester that carry the state’s political weight.  It’s because of this that Wednesday’s decision was seen as a foregone conclusion, much to the ire of the politicians (mostly Republican) who represent those other places and perhaps partly explains their spluttering fury. 

The context here, of course, is COVID and the acceptance, or not, of the principle that people in need should not lose their homes during a pandemic.  Like the UK, for most of the time since March 2020, the US has agreed that they should not, including when the racist slumlord was President.  But although the virus continues to swirl, the forces of capital have been very anxious to, as one UK Tory housing minister put it, “get back to normal” and start evicting again. 

Sadly, this position has been accepted with a whimper in the UK where, despite being renewed (under campaign pressure) a couple of times, the eviction ban ended on 31st May.  But it’s been met with a roar in New York!  Despite the cumulative fatigue of the past 18 months, in August alone, tenants and housing justice campaigns have held five public protests and related activity, which gained additional energy after the Supreme Court struck-down the federal eviction ban on 27th August.

That decision, from the highest legal authority in the land, drew the battle lines for last week’s Albany debate and what lies ahead.  It invoked the fundamental issue of property rights, which is the underpinning of all capitalist legal systems and carries a particular ideological punch in the US where it’s written into the constitution.  So, the notion that landlords should be denied the right, even in extraordinary, life-threatening circumstances, to evict tenants challenges the essence of how some people see the world.           

Here are some quotes from the debate:

“(The eviction moratorium) is sending the wrong message to society…people are gaming the system” (Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Republican, 8th District)

“(The eviction moratorium) is voiding legal contracts and eliminating property rights…the longer this goes on, the more prominent the mantra ‘cancel rent’ will be.”  (Michael Lawler, Republican, 97th District)

“(The eviction moratorium) is New York doubling-down, even though there’s no longer a state of emergency.”  (Mary Beth Walsh, Republican, 112th District)

“(The eviction moratorium) means people don’t have to go to work.  People will come here from other states.  Let’s get our tenants back out to work and do the American thing.”  (Brian Manktelow, Republican, 130th District)

Summing the debate up for the Republicans, Mark Walczyk (116th District) had the audacity to invoke Native-Americans as part of his rationale for opposing the eviction moratorium, presumably linking this to the fear he mongered that people will feel that the government is going to take over their homes.  In a neo-con stream of consciousness, he went to attack public housing and quote Milton Friedman. 

These visceral reactions distill some of the American essence, but they also overlook key facts.  The various eviction moratoria during the pandemic haven’t stopped landlords carrying out evictions, just restricted the situations in which they can do so.  Rent has not been “cancelled”, but can potentially be paid by the national government through the $45 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).  Many tenants are likely to still owe a significant amount of rent, even if ERAP payments are finally made, because it is time and circumstances limited, a situation that will be worsened by the elimination of emergency unemployment benefits, which happens today.  And the pandemic is not over! 

In the end though, the protestations of the landlord and real estate lobby last Wednesday were futile.  The bill to extend (with qualifications) the State’s eviction moratorium was comfortably carried and will be in place until 15th January 2022, a remarkable achievement by New York tenants and campaigners.  They will have ensured the state is virtually eviction-free for 23 months.  Noone pretends the struggle is over and there’s every chance it will be re-joined on similar terrain in four months.  For the tenants’ movement, the task now is to move beyond the recurring crisis moment and win longer-lasting, systemic housing reforms. 

But their victory, which no other US state or many other countries have emulated, shouldn’t be under-estimated.  Even with caveats, they have succeeded in inverting one of the capitalist norms – that the rights of the Feudally-named “landlords” always outweigh those of tenants.  There are many lessons to be learned for other places, which I’ll try to write about soon.  In the meantime, “happy labor day!”   

Scene at the end of the Albany debate.

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