Victories For Tenants

As you read this, Congress will have returned from its summer recess. With the budget behind them, they should be ready to tackle, among other unresolved legislation, the bills that propose massive changes to public housing and Section 8. Together these programs directly affect the lives of 4.5 million households and represent the bulk of our nation’s commitment to low-income housing. In this issue, we take a close look at the project-based Section 8 programs, which provide assistance to over a million families.

“The federal government has never been fully committed to meeting the housing needs of the poor,” writes Rachel Bratt as she traces federal housing policy since the depression. That lack of commitment has forced advocates into an unending series of battles for precious few, and often diminishing, resources.

In the battle to preserve Section 8 housing, advocates can claim one early victory. Congress has authorized five years of budget outlays to fund thousands of Section 8 contracts.

But, as Jim Grow describes in his examination of the competing legislative proposals to reform the project-based Section 8 program, this victory may be prryic, unless advocates work diligently every year to force Congress to “appropriate” those authorized funds.

More importantly, the very nature of Section 8 may change, causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing. At a time of increasing poverty, when barely one out of three low-income households can afford basic shelter, such a loss would be devastating. Beginning on page 15, national advocacy organizations weigh in on the importance of Section 8 reform and offer their views on the ways reform should occur.

While Congress debates, the group most affected by Section 8 – tenants – is finally making its voice heard. For the past few years, tenants in HUD-assisted buildings have been organizing for better service, for justice, and for a voice in the decisions that will change their lives. That voice is taking life in the National Association of HUD Tenants, which recently held its third annual conference in Washington, DC. Attendees found that by organizing they could create real change both at the local level in their buildings and nationally through their interactions with HUD and Congress. Karen Ceraso profiles their growth and goals.

Rent Control Victories and Losses

Pity New York State’s Republican Governor George Pataki and the state Senate’s Majority (Republican) Leader Joseph Bruno. The Right Wing and the landlord lobby had such high hopes for them. “At long last,” wrote Peter D. Salins in the Winter 97 issue of City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, “the unwinding of rent controls in New York seems at hand.” They chortled when Bruno announced that he was ready to sunset the state’s rent regulations on the day the regs were to expire. And they were pleased as punch that the Governor was “on record opposed to rent control.”

But Pataki and Bruno did not dismantle rent control regulations in New York State. When the dust settles (it’s still falling as of this writing) the rent regs will still exist, albeit in weakened form. The Right’s response?

“Could Pataki and Bruno have handled the fight against rent control any more ineptly or given any stronger proof of their incompetence as political generals?” writes William J. Stern in the current issue of City Journal. “One wonders if they understood at all that they were entering into an epochal political battle.”

Everyone from editorial writers to “economists and policy wonks” Stern writes, agreed that rent controls were a primary cause of the high rents and housing shortage in New York City. No one could disagree, says Stern, except “the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition (NYSTNC), the noisiest and most influential of the state’s rent-control advocates a group increasingly on the defensive as its reactionary views clash with current thinking.”

The Right credits the saving of rent control to Pataki’s and Bruno’s political incompetence. The Right is wrong. While New York State Republicans may not have played an especially good political game, rent controls were spared for three reasons. First, rent regulations work – they protect renters from unfair evictions and price gauging, and they help keep neighborhoods stable.  Second, rent control is one of the few issues that can unite low-, middle-, and upper-income people into an effective political coalition. And while few advocates are happy about their losses, they all agree that tenants waged one of the most successful organizing campaigns in many years (of which NYSTNC was a leader) – the third and most important reason rent regulations were saved in New York State.

Peter Dreier and Winton Pitcoff  report on this latest round of rent control battles. And in our Organize! column, Karen Ceraso interviews NYSTNC’s policy director and rent control campaign manager Mike McKee on the organizing strategy that won the day for New York tenants.


Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.


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