In June, New York State legislators passed legislation extending the state’s rent protection laws [see full article]. The New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition (NYSTNC) played a key role in the battle to renew the laws. Michael McKee, policy director for NYSTNC, served as its rent law campaign manager.
A founder of the Coalition in 1974, McKee previously worked as a tenant organizer for the Metropolitan Council on Housing, and the Brooklyn Tenants Union, and as Executive Director of the People’s Housing Network. Associate Editor Karen Ceraso conducted this interview soon after the New York State Legislature passed the laws.
KC: Was the recent rent control legislation a “victory” for tenants?
MM: Virtually no one in the legislature started out this year thinking we could avoid vacancy decontrol. In fact, dozens of legislators said to me, “You’re going to have to agree to vacancy decontrol to get the laws renewed.” So I don’t think the victory of defeating vacancy decontrol can be minimized.
The bill does contain some things that are extremely dangerous…not just the escrow provisions of the new law but other procedural changes in housing court. If you have a lawyer, you’ll be okay, but 90 percent of tenants don’t have lawyers, and people go into housing court not even knowing which room they’re supposed to go to, let alone what they’re supposed to say or what rights or defenses they might have. People sign stipulations, usually without the judge or anyone else – people don’t even see a judge, as a rule – saying, “Do you understand what this agreement means?” The agreement gets converted into an order of the court, and under this new law, if you can’t pay the rent within five days, you’re going to be evicted. So the housing court provisions of this bill are a disaster.
KC: Was there a point when you thought vacancy decontrol would pass?
MM: I always felt we could beat them on that issue. Plus, the other side committed a series of public relations miscalculations. They assumed tenants would not understand what vacancy decontrol meant. But we knew three years ago that vacancy decontrol was the real goal of the real estate lobby and their allies in the legislature, so we’ve done a lot of education of our members and the tenant community about why vacancy decontrol is not the benign-seeming thing the other side makes it out to be. They never were able to concoct an argument in support of vacancy decontrol that the public would buy, despite all four daily newspapers running repeated editorials, despite constant editorials in the Gannett Westchester newspapers. [Besides] the issue of harassment, which certainly would be a problem under full vacancy decontrol, the real issue is affordability and what happens to the housing stock, and the loss of rights for tenants moving into decontrolled apartments.
KC: What’s your assessment of how the media coverage influenced this battle?
MM: All I can say is, thank God for Joe Bruno [New York State Senate Majority Leader], because without him I don’t think we would have been able to interest the media in this story so early. One reason we lost in the legislature four years ago, and had to swallow some weakening amendments as the price of another extender, was that we couldn’t get the media to pay attention to this issue. I remember telling reporters in 1993, “They’re going to try to gut these laws when they come up for renewal.” They would say, “We’ll write about it in June when it happens.” This year, by March or April, there was widespread public awareness that these laws were coming up for renewal. The landlords were unable to deploy their normal stealth strategy, which is to keep everything quiet and do everything behind closed doors. Bruno blew that out of the water by making the statement on December 5 “We are going to end rent regulation as we know it.” By the way, the Rent Stabilization Association did not publicize his speech – we did. We sent out a media alert two days before and got several reporters there. If Bruno had said, “We’re going to study it, we’re going to talk to both sides, and we might make some changes,” that would not have been news. But he threw the gauntlet down, and the same day it was the opposite of the normal experience with the media, where you’re trying to sell them on your story; here we had to actually add staff just to handle media requests.
The coverage straight through the end was an enormous plus, because in a public debate, there’s simply no way the landlords can win. Landlords are generally not popular. A New York Times poll about three weeks before the end showed that the majority of homeowners and co-op shareholders favor rent regulation.
….We had reporters calling daily, saying, “What’s going on? Anything happening?” It was really like a presidential campaign. And we had national media, reporters from out-of-town newspapers….I think we’ve clearly established this organization as a source for the media. We’d get a call from TV reporter A saying, “Can you find me a family of a husband and wife with two children who make somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 a year and who would have to move if the rent laws were not renewed?” We had this fantastic committee that met every two weeks beginning last summer. So by the time Bruno came out with his pronouncement, we knew we were going to target downstate Republican senators, we knew we were going to target Pataki. We knew we had to put Pataki on the hook, because he, more than any other elected official, represents more rent regulated tenants – he represents them all. But when this media crunch became overwhelming, a couple committee members took our active mailing list and called people, asking “Would you be willing to be interviewed and asked such questions as what is your annual income? What kind of apartment do you live in? What’s your rent? Is there any history of landlord-tenant disputes?” A lot of people won’t talk about that; it’s very personal information. And we had this list of about 85 people which became like it was worth gold.
KC: Do you think you were able to win the battle of ideas, when the major dailies are still editorializing against rent regulation?
MM: These editorial writers must be extremely frustrated, to write all these editorials that have absolutely no effect on public opinion. The fact that the Times and the News and the Post and Newsday even, and the Gannet papers in Westchester, editorialized, “You’ve got to get rid of this system. Vacancy decontrol is the reasonable way,” just didn’t have any impact.
KC: Although Sheldon Silver has been a close ally, did you need to pressure him and other Democrats at some point?
MM: We knew that if we were going to get anything in the 97th session of the legislature, it would be through Shelly. We’re fortunate to have a speaker who both has a lot of rent regulated apartments in his district and is a very good negotiator – probably the toughest in Albany. But there was a point where we felt he should be more outspoken. So we printed up about 20,000 postcards and got people to send them, asking him to show leadership on this issue. It was not an attack. This was in the winter/spring ’96, the same time we did the postcard campaign to Pataki, which was much more hard hitting. We discontinued the postcard campaign to Silver at an early stage, because he started making the right noises. We knew Shelly was pro-tenant; that wasn’t even the issue. But he has a very diverse conference: he has Democrats from NYC, the suburbs, eastern Long Island, upstate, and they have a wide array of competing interests and points of view. He was able, in the final analysis, to unify this conference behind this issue. Most upstate Democrats in the assembly voted to renew the laws.
Most people upstate don’t care one way or the other about rent regulation – including Republican, conservative legislators. They’d just as soon vote for a rent bill as vote against it, if that’s a part of the package. And the real estate industry ran ads upstate last fall for two weeks prior to the election… The ads said, “Tell your legislators to oppose New York City rent regulation.” They assumed viewers would make the connection as to why this is an issue they should be concerned about; that they even knew who their legislator was; and that they knew how to get in touch with their legislators. The ads didn’t target anyone; none said “Call Assemblywoman Joan Christiansen,” – a Democrat from Syracuse who’s always been supportive of us – “and here’s her number.” They were very ineffective ads.
Day to Day Organizing
KC: Can you describe the day to day organizing effort in this campaign?
MM: We started planning for this after the loss in the legislature in ’93. We had a two-day board retreat in the Catskills that November. At that point we had one and a half staff people, and we knew we had to grow the organization. In 1993 we had 1,500 individual members; today we have about 21,000 dues paying households. Plus we’ve grown from about 105 organizational members to about 147.
We worked very hard to increase individual memberships. We did direct mail prospecting to rent regulated tenants starting in February 1995, when we sent a letter to 20,000 tenants on the upper east side signed by a local assemblyman, telling them there was a danger to rent regulation and asking them to send us money. It cost us $6,300 for printing and postage, and we pulled in $15,000 on that first drop. The major support for our fight this spring, from January through June, came from proven mail donors, who we resolicited virtually on a monthly basis. We also embarked on a telemarketing campaign in November ’95. We have yet to net significant amounts of money from that, but we added 12,000 new members. We got people we could activate, especially when we could match them to targeted legislative districts. Staring this spring, we got unsolicited checks in the mail.
Ultimately we hired seven organizers, in addition to Billy [Easton, NYSTNC’s legislative director] and myself and the support staff. One organizer, a tenant leader from a HUD building in Harlem, was our volunteer coordinator. She ran our phone bank every weeknight. And we hired organizers for specific areas. We opened an office in Nassau County with two staff organizers, because five Republican senate districts in Nassau County have rent regulated tenants. We helped pull together a Nassau Tenants Coalition. Other organizers were assigned to particular Senate Republican districts.
The remarkable thing is that this was all grassroots money, raised from tenants. Very few foundations will even touch rent regulation, because it’s such a controversial issue. Funders often don’t understand that it is a poor person’s issue; more poor people are living in rent regulated housing in NYC than in public housing or in-rem housing.
KC: You did also get some money from unions?
MM: Yes. We got three things, actually. We got in-kind help; local 1199 donated their phone bank. If we’d had to pay for the use of the equipment and the telephone calls, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.
The other thing we got from unions was that, for the first time, many took this seriously as a bread and butter issue, largely through the efforts of Shelly Silver. So we had unions, for example, sending buses to tenant lobby day – not just paying for buses, which some had done in past years, but mobilizing their members.
The third thing was that several unions [and elected officials] kicked in money for television ads. We had formed a committee called New Yorkers to Save Rent Protection, an alliance with MetCouncil on Housing and the Queens League of United Tenants. We did a special mail prospecting drop to raise money for TV ads. So, even though it’s quite a modest ad buy in the scheme of things, we were able to pay for about $250,000 worth of TV and radio ads, mostly TV, between May 15 and June 15.
KC: How often did you meet with legislators?
MM: Billy, who lives and works in Albany, was meeting with legislators every day of the session, and we would meet with legislators on other occasions. The centerpiece of our strategy was to get tenants in specific legislators’ districts to pressure them. We concentrated on five of eight downstate senators with significant numbers of rent regulated apartments in their districts. We already had two of those votes; to defeat Pataki and Bruno, we needed three more. So we put enormous pressure on these five guys, by phone banking, by sending staff into their district to meet with tenant groups.
Toward the end, in some districts, our phone bank had these wonderful people who were really effective at calling up cold. Generally, people were responsive. We coded them by the level of response. The number one list were people who would say things like, “What else can I do? Can you send me literature? Can you send a speaker to my building?” The number two list were people who were not so responsive but did take action, like leaving a message telling us what happened when they called Senator X. By the end, in some cases, we had called these people three and four times. The last couple of times were to ask them to call Governor Pataki. Having 600 “hot” people in [certain] Senators’ districts made an enormous difference.
Some of these tenants have called since and said, “Let’s go after some of these guys, let’s do more phone banking.” People are pissed. We expect to be able to tap into this. I think the Republicans are hoping this is all going to blow away by next year’s election. But Pataki is going to be remembered as the Governor who tried to end rent regulation, despite his best efforts to sidestep the issue. We intend to make sure he is remembered that way.
KC: Who were your key allies?
MM: The most important allies were Met Council and Queens League of United Tenants. We worked in alliance with other groups and pursued our own agenda, which resulted in certain tensions. We decided to run this as a political campaign, not an exercise in lowest common denominator democracy, where you have 40 people sitting around a table arguing about the correct strategy, and you end up doing what you can agree upon. We knew that if this fight was going to be won, we were going to provide the leadership. That may sound very arrogant, but that’s the way we felt and still do.
We had a very targeted, sophisticated strategy, beyond the normal thing: “Well, let’s get everybody on a bus and get them up to Albany, and it doesn’t matter where they’re from, as long as we show the numbers.” All of that is good and important, but it does not substitute for targeted pressure. At the same time, some meetings with our coalition partners were very difficult and contentious, even though everybody had the same goal. A lot of people felt they had a right to tell us how to spend our money and deploy our organizational resources. But we had a committee of board and staff members and grassroots tenant leaders from different organizations that was making these decisions.
KC: Did you work with senior citizen, community development, or other groups?
MM: Seniors were a key part of this. Senior citizens tend to be politically active, they tend to be more informed about public policy than a lot of other people, and they don’t necessarily buy an argument, “Well, we’re going to protect you, the senior citizen.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard senior citizens say things like, “I’m not just concerned about myself, I’m concerned about people who are going to need apartments in the future.” Community development corporations, much less, although some such groups that do development and management and tenant organizing would be the exception.
KC: Can you hold your coalition together around other issues, and are there any other big issues coming up for you?
MM: The issue’s going to be the defense of rent regulation. We intend to use the infrastructure we have in place, which involves hundreds of tenants chomping at the bit to do something. We are talking about a PAC/voter education project. I think one of the reasons the other side was so ready to agree to a six-year extender was the thought that we would just sort of disappear in six years. Of course, it’s hard to keep people organized around an issue that’s six years away. But there are people who would be very interested in getting involved in electoral politics, to show that tenants have power, and if you mess with tenants’ rights, there’ll be a price to pay.
KC: Doesn’t the new law pave the way for eventually eliminating the affordability of many more units?
MM: Well, 20 percent is a hit, but, for the most part, on turnover landlords just charge market rent anyway. Some abide by the rules, but a lot say, “I just won’t get caught.” And very few tenants moving into apartments file overcharge complaints. Many assume, “The landlord has a right to charge anything he wants when I first rent this apartment, and then I’m going to go under rent stabilization.” So rents jump significantly, and the state division of housing does nothing. For years we’ve said [the state] should institute a red flag system for large jumps in rent from year to year. They have no intention of doing anything like that, because they don’t want to be proactive. In that context, 20 percent is not insignificant, by any means, but it’s a far cry from vacancy decontrol.
KC: Rent control opponents, and even some affordable housing advocates, say it protects some rich people and not necessarily many poor people. What do you say to those arguments?
MM: It shows a lack of understanding of rent regulation. Rent regulation is price and eviction regulation. Without it, people do not have basic rights of tenure; landlords are free to evict for any reason or no reason. While rent regulation does not guarantee people an affordable rent, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be paying even more without it. There’s a very significant difference between median regulated rents and unregulated rents throughout New York City, even in most poor neighborhoods. You don’t find the kind of spread as in the core neighborhoods of Manhattan, where you may have a $600 a month difference between regulated and unregulated rents at the median…But in University Heights-Fordham, in the Bronx, the difference between median regulated and unregulated rents is $125 a month. University Heights-Fordham is a community populated by low-income working people, largely people of color struggling to make ends meet, and $125 a month at the median is a very significant benefit to people in that community.
As far as benefiting rich people, again, this shows a lack of understanding rent regulation. It is not a subsidy from the landlord to the tenant; it’s not a subsidy from government to the tenant. It is price regulation. I believe rent regulation should be universal, because the issue is not just whether the tenant there now needs it or deserves it. It’s about people who need that apartment in the future. If you deregulate those apartments based on somebody living there who’s got a high income…it just diminishes the supply of affordable housing. This whole thing about rich people living in rent regulated apartments is a complete red herring. Why would we be any better equipped to defend the rent regulation system by decontrolling people with high incomes? Does that mean the real estate lobby is going to drop its opposition to rent regulation?
KC: Should tenants push for a state or federal housing construction and subsidy program?
MM: Absolutely. Until the federal government gets back into the housing production business, we’re going to have a worse housing situation every year. Right now the HUD budget is about one-quarter what it needs to be to provide housing assistance to everybody who qualifies. At the same time, the only real housing entitlement we have is the homeowner deduction, the great majority of which goes to higher income people. I might be a little less impatient about means testing under rent regulation if we means tested homeowner deductions.
KC: What role can your coalition play?
MM: I am very pessimistic about this. I don’t know at what point there would be a powerful enough movement to persuade the powers in Washington to get back into the housing business. I think the federal government took a wrong turn back in the 1960s when it turned away from public housing and started bribing private developers to create low-income housing – to own it and operate it as a profit making enterprise.
KC: Is NYSTNC doing any organizing around the HUD’s “Portfolio Reengineering”?
MM: We’re very involved on the federal level. Our 501(c)3 affiliate, New York State Tenants and Neighbors Information Service, has external funding to help organize tenants in Section 8 buildings. We just sent a large delegation to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) annual conference in Washington last weekend. And we have a couple of grant proposals out to do the same thing with public housing tenants that we’ve been doing with Section 8 tenants.
KC: Tenant groups in California and Massachusetts lost rent control battles recently. Did you learn any lessons from their defeat?
MM: Not really, although we certainly looked at what happened in Massachusetts – that was terrible. The tenants in Massachusetts really flubbed it by putting their faith in getting this knocked down in the courts and off the ballot…and then having a very short period of time to organize. Plus, they were outspent something like 10 to 1. We know the real estate lobby spent over a million dollars….Anyway, we certainly looked at it, but we knew we had to organize and mobilize tenants. We felt if we could do this in a targeted way, we could win.
KC: Are there lessons from your success for other tenant activists?
MM: Plan early. We started this several years ago, and developed a strategy and stuck to the strategy….It was an amazing campaign. It was incredibly gratifying to see tenants respond the way they did, and we hope to build on it.