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5. Tenant Responses to the Urban Housing Crisis, 1970-1984

Ronald Lawson with the assistance of Reuben B. Johnson III

Tenant Impact: Retrospect and Prospect

The fifteen years between 1970 and 1984 were a period of growth, diversification, and increasing influence for the tenant movement in New York. Within the city the movement was no longer concentrated in Manhattan, but was now well represented in three outer boroughs with large numbers of tenants: Brooklyn, where it had become a presence in the early 1970s; the Bronx, where NWBCCC's eight affiliates represented real strength in the north and ANHD members were hard at work managing and rehabilitating buildings in the south; and Queens, where the long unorganized tenant terrain had sprouted a spunky local federation appropriately known as QLOUT (Queens League of United Tenants) in 1981, which brought together fifteen affiliates in predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods. Meanwhile, NYSTNC had continued to expand upstate in its endeavor to build a statewide federation, its membership climbing to a total of seventy organizations by 1983.

The expanded movement represented a previously unmatched diversity of tenants, no matter what dimension is considered: middle class, working class, and poor; black, white and Hispanic; political radicals and neighborhood-oriented conservatives. The result was an unheralded breadth of protest. South Bronx tenants seized control of buildings undergoing abandonment while West End Avenue tenants organized because their elevator operators were replaced by automatic elevators or their doormen no longer wore white gloves; tenants from all over the city pressured the meetings of the Rent Guidelines Board with their unruliness, while their leaders lobbied with finesse in Albany.

The increased influence of the movement was seen at all levels. Among buildings, movement strategies were perceived by tenants as having a positive effect. When the leaders of 153 building organizations, first interviewed in 1975-1976 while using strategies against their landlords, were reinterviewed eight years later, 80 percent reported that the actions had brought short-term gains and 59 percent reported that gains were retained over time. (The record was least positive in the more deteriorated neighborhoods -- the 34 cases in which the situation got worse after the tenant action include 13 buildings that were abandoned and derelict.) Met Council, with its very careful implementation of strategies, scored higher than the other neighborhood organizations collectively: 71 percent as compared with 58 percent long-term gains. The few (7) buildings in the sample that underwent rehabilitation and conversion to low-income ownership were unanimously reported as showing both immediate and long-term gains -- their transformation had been most dramatic.

A separate study of the first forty-six low-income rehabilitation/conversions ten to fifteen years later allows us to examine the track records of such buildings more closely. Respondents stated overwhelmingly, 73 to 7, that they preferred living in a co-op to having a landlord; they said that co-ops gave them control over their housing, a better place to live and better services, and at a lower cost. When asked to evaluate their co-op as a success or failure, the vote was 70 to 17 in favor of successes. A leader of one of a cluster of four successful co-ops in the South Bronx that were surrounded by devastation declared with justification that they were "a piece of heaven in hell."[116]

Although the influence of the movement has increased, limitations on its impact remain. For example, many of the early low-income co-ops, lacking the financial resources, skills, or will to make ends meet, are in financial trouble. Eight of the forty-six are in rem (that is, have been seized by the city because of unpaid taxes), another six are filed for the next vesting, and five others were previously in rem but have been redeemed by their tenant owners. That is, 41 percent of the co-ops are or have been in severe tax problems -- problems of the kind that can remove tenant ownership and thus destroy the co-op. Moreover, 63 percent were at least two years and five months behind with their debt service payments in 1983. Only fourteen made all payments in 1982-1983; another fourteen made no payments at all. While HPD could legally foreclose on many of these properties, it has in fact done so in only one case: it would be obliged to manage them, which would be even more costly than merely foregoing the payments.[117] Experience with these co-ops has demonstrated that properties frequently need more income to cover costs than poor tenants can pay, even where profit is not on the agenda. Ultimately, then, housing issues cannot stand alone, especially when poor tenants are concerned. A broader vision is needed, one that sets out to link the tenant issue to others such as the need to alleviate unemployment and poverty; for if these issues are dealt with, then housing for the poor will be able to pay its way.

The tenant movement's strength has also been limited by membership turnover. Met Council has rarely achieved a 50 percent renewal rate, while that of most neighborhood organizations, which give renewal less attention, has been considerably less. Most building organizations tend to be organized around a particular internal goal, and once this goal is realized their raison d'etre evaporates. Only 53 percent of buildings that were still inhabited eight years after organizing retained any degree of organization. The proportion remaining in contact with the neighborhood organization that helped them organize was only 40 percent, and in the majority of these the contact was maintained by one or two individual memberships. However, the tenant movement, like the labor movement, has the advantage of having real locals where people are in regular contact with each other whether organized or not. This can allow a building organization to pass into latency, ready to be revived when needed -- the more easily if some tenants retain contact with a trusted neighborhood organization.

A major exception to this pattern occurs when a building becomes tenant controlled. Thus, low-income co-ops are much more likely to stay organized -- indeed, they have to, almost by definition. However, they seem to be even more prone to lose contact with the neighborhood organizations that assisted them initially. While 84 percent of the sample of early co-ops reported that they had close ties with a neighborhood organization initially, only 23 percent currently have such ties. This has left the co-ops isolated, without links to the tenant movement. Indeed, few of them are in contact with one another -- even those that originally had the same sponsoring neighborhood organizations. Rather than becoming sources of inspiration and building blocks of the movement, they have put all their energies into mere survival.[118]

At the neighborhood level, the housing market in New York City was subdivided into three sectors, each with its own problems for tenants, throughout this period. At the bottom lay neighborhoods inhabited by poor minority populations, mostly in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn, where tenants faced severe decay and abandonment. This sector was encroaching on contiguous neighborhoods as their previous white tenants fled and landlords, real estate brokers, banks, and city agencies created a self-fulfilling prophecy of decay by their responses to the new minority tenants. The top sector, concentrated mostly in Manhattan, was characterized by spiraling rents, conversions, and gentrification. It too was spreading, driven by speculation and the changing fortunes of city and suburbs following the oil crisis. In between these two sectors lay another made up of previously stable working- and lower-middle-class areas that were feeling pressure both from below, primarily in the outer boroughs, as population shifts triggered white flight from the mid-Bronx, neighborhoods such as Brooklyn's East Flatbush, and the belt surrounding the Jamaica ghetto in Queens, and from above, mainly in Manhattan, as gentrification spread from the East Village into the Lower East Side, from Chelsea into Clinton, and from the Upper West Side into Manhattan Valley, and as the brownstone revival spread outward from Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. Tenant strategies had saved large numbers of buildings and stabilized many blocks in these neighborhoods, but had not rescued the neighborhoods from the ravages of abandonment and gentrification. Nevertheless, while the wars against market forces seemed lopsided, they continued to be waged.

The improved political outlook for tenants is a dramatic indication of greater movement influence. Within the space of a few years, tenants have moved politically from being solely reactive to seeking to shape housing policy, and in the process have to a large extent set the legislative agenda while succeeding in placing large new sections of the housing market -- conversions, retaliatory evictions, landlord obligations within a lease, and bank mortgage practices -- under government regulation. New court practices have been accepted, tenants have successfully claimed management and ownership of their buildings, politicians have been transformed into tenant advocates, the daily lives of those involved in both sides of the tenant-landlord relationship have been altered. But although this represents a considerable change for the better for tenants since 1970-1971, it does not mean that all has become rosy for them. Tenants have matched, perhaps even exceeded, the sophistication of the real estate lobby, but not its wealth. The result has been a tendency of the legislature to try to balance political outcomes -- to compromise on particular pieces of legislation or to allow the tenants a victory on one issue but to hold firm for real estate on another. Most significantly, the many battles concerning rent regulations have not prevented considerable increases in rent levels under both rent stabilization and rent control since 1970, so the proportion of households with a rent:income ratio of over 25 percent jumped by over 20 points, from 35.5 percent to 56.6 percent between 1970 and 1981, and those with a ratio exceeding 40 percent, an extremely high level, almost doubled between 1968 and 1981 from 16.7 percent to 30.5 percent.[119] Tenant "victories" over the Emergency Tenant Protection Act have been limited to preventing rent increases from being sharper still.

A second dramatic indication of greater movement influence has been the flow of external funding to many tenant organizations. This funding allowed tenants to take over the management of their buildings, to rehabilitate them, and to own them cooperatively; it also enormously increased the number of full-time tenant activists and opened up movement career paths. However, it so shaped the goals and strategies of organizations that it raised the specter of cooptation. Meanwhile, in spite of their genuinely warm words for their homes, which flow from the contrast with other housing in poor neighborhoods, the low-income cooperators are indeed owners of last resort. While, from one point of view, the strongest endorsement of strategies featuring tenant control has been their adoption and promotion by government agencies, the buildings passed to tenant groups have usually been unwanted lemons, and government generosity has proved likely to be withdrawn just as soon as a private landlord would offer more for them.

The evolution of strategies during this period has been transforming tenant activism from a movement toward an interest group. The routinization of the rent strike has rendered it less radical and more predictable, while miring it in the labyrinthine corridors of the housing court. Most of the new approaches to the legislature, banks, agencies, and funders require sophistication, skills, and, in many cases, professional staff.

The tenant movement is now, in several ways, at a turning point. Many of the members of ANHD are being squeezed by cuts in funding and have been warned solemnly that they must get "back to basics." Met Council has chosen to divert resources from organizing to try to build broad political coalitions; it is also about to test new leadership, for Jane Benedict, its charismatic chairperson for the past quarter of a century, has retired, marking a changing of the guard. She is the last remaining major figure from the founding generation. And NYSTNC, which has added a rapidly growing stratum of individual members to its organizational affiliate core, is focusing on how it can expand tenant power further by modifying the Omnibus Housing Law to unify the rent system and bring unregulated areas and classes of housing within it.

Strategic innovation continues: for example, a large group of tenant activists drawn from NYSTNC, QLOUT, Met Council, ANHD, and independent neighborhood organizations formed a statewide Tenants Political Action Committee (TenPAC) early in 1984, which endorsed two state senate candidates in closely fought races and supported them with volunteer electoral workers as a counterweight to the real estate funds being channeled to their opponents. Their hope was to provide a victory margin and win influence in Albany in 1985, when the Omnibus Housing Law may be amended because it is due to be extended. The candidate credited TenPAC with providing the margin of victory in one of these cases; the other candidate was engulfed by a Reagan landslide in his district. Meanwhile, all three main federations are exploring the potential of the National Tenants Union. The spread of the structural pattern of the movement in New York to other states, and its expansion to a new super federation at the national level, suggest that there will be a new stability, sophistication, and coherence in the expression of tenant interests.

The precise directions the tenant movement will take in the future may not yet be clear. Nevertheless, it is certain that during the period 1970-1984 it developed a diversity, sophistication, and power greater than it has ever previously possessed.

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