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Tenant Organizing For 36 Years

by Joe Lamport, Oct 31, 2006
 

If sheer animosity from one’s opponents is any gauge of one’s effectiveness, then Michael McKee may be the most effective tenant organizer in New York City: The landlords I talked to flat out refused to comment about him, not even anonymously.

Whether or not he is the most effective, McKee is certainly the longest-serving. It has been 36 years since he first became an advocate for rent regulation.

“If you go through the list of tenant victories, there isn’t one that doesn’t have Michael as its leader,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told about 150 people who gathered recently to honor him. “Whether faced with bad speakers, bad governors, bad Rent Guidelines Boards, I’ve never seen Michael give up faith in the tenants movement.”

The tenant movement has faced rough times over the last few years. I thought it a good time to ask one opinionated man his opinion of tenant organizing, and the housing picture in the city:

How did you get involved in housing?

I stumbled into community organizing by organizing a rent strike in the building I was living in at the time.

What would you list as some achievements?

1. The warranty of habitability, which was a bill we drafted. We put a remarkable coalition together that supported that bill and it was one of the few times we got a bill through without having to water it down. And the landlords lobby at the time predicted that if it became law it would lead to another wave of abandonment, which of course did not happen.

2. The 1977 fight to renew the Emergency Tenant Protection Act when there was a danger it was going to be gutted.

3. The 1997 rent law fight, where Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno basically said he would not renew the rent laws and meant it, which I don’t think a lot of people understood. If only Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver hadn’t gone in the last weekend and given everything away, it would have been a great victory.

Why do elected representatives seem to discount housing as an issue?

I think the reason elected officials don’t take tenants seriously is because tenants don’t vote as tenants when they go into the voting booth. They vote pro-choice or anti-war or whatever. It’s much more difficult to organize tenants than it is to organize workers.

How do you explain your staying power?

Organizing is very difficult work, there are more defeats than victories. You have to be prepared to deal with that and roll with the punches.

In your opinion, what is the housing situation like today?

While we’ve always had too many people chasing too few housing units, it’s getting worse all the time. The rent laws were weakened at exactly the wrong moment, allowing landlords to take apartments out from under rent regulation. We don’t have an emergency anymore, we have a crisis, objectively speaking, and I think it’s going to get worse.

What do you mean objectively?

The number of people spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent has gone up dramatically. Overcrowding has gone up: Twenty years ago, overcrowding was six or seven percent of households; in 2002 it was 11 percent of households. I mean any objective measure you want to use, including the fact that homelessness is at an all-time high. If you look at the overall picture – rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments – we lost probably 57,000 units between 2002 and 2005. There’s virtually no measure that would show you that the housing situation is better.

And how would you say politicians are dealing with it?

I think it’s deplorable. The smart thing the real estate lobby did this time, unlike 1971, is they figured out that a gradual decontrol mechanism would not stir things up. People got totally up in arms between 1971 and 1974, resulting in the repeal of vacancy decontrol.

Do you think some form of rent regulation in New York City will always be necessary?

Absolutely. I think rent regulation should be universal…covering all buildings of, say, four units or more, regardless of when they were constructed or regardless of when people moved in or moved out.

We can’t sit around and wait for 2011 [when the legislature will decide whether to renew the rent laws]. It’ll be too late by then. There won’t be anything left. I think in two or three years it’ll be too late to turn it around. The real estate strategy is to have the laws come up in five more years and have many, many fewer rent regulated apartments so that we will be politically weaker.

What are the major areas you’ll spend your energy on over the next few years?

I don’t think anything is going to change until the Democrats take control of the State Senate. Not that the Democrats are so wonderful, but they are certainly better than the Republicans. And certainly there are more Democrats that will fight for us than there are Republicans who will fight for us. There are no Republicans who will fight for us. So even though some Democrats are not so pro-tenant or pro-rent regulation they are offset by people who are.

In NYC, does it all come down to money? Is that the root of the problem?

No question. The NYC real estate industry funnels money to state elected officials and state parties – they basically buy what they want in Albany. In my view it’s a form of corruption. They basically are buying deregulation by paying off legislators from upstate New York who do not have a single rent regulated unit in their districts. And yet who are the ones who make the decisions?

Knowing what you do about incremental changes, what can be achieved for tenants over the next few years?

I don’t think anything can be achieved legislatively until the Democrats take control of the senate. And that’s why I have not gone to Albany since June of 2003. There’s no point in doing any lobbying right now. Next year there will be a point in that there is a new governor.

Is there any hope that Spitzer will be more progressive with housing?

I think he’s going to be better than Pataki, but that’s not saying much. And who knows – we don’t know what Eliott Spitzer really thinks of rent regulation. He hasn’t said. I think he would not veto a bill passed by both houses, for example. The question is will he fight for anything? We know he’s opposed to home rule, although they’ve never told us that. Every meeting we had with him, they never would say what his position was. But now it’s official” He told the Times he opposed the repeal of the Urstadt Law.

Once there is a change in Albany, what can be done?

We can get a lot. We can get vacancy decontrol repealed, and I think we can get the Urstadt Law repealed. I think it would be very hard for the Senate Democrats not to do that when they’re the majority.

Housing advocates in Los Angeles told me once that that city got cyclical inspections of buildings to make sure they are up to code and that landlords love that system, that they say it helps them maintain their buildings. But the idea of housing advocates and landlords working together in New York City seems laughable. What do you think explains the housing climate in this city?

You have some of the richest people on the planet owning real property here. Literally, some of the richest people in the world own residential real estate in New York City. One difference between us and Los Angeles is we can’t spread out horizontally. Or the way Dallas can. We don’t have a sixth borough lying fallow waiting to be developed the way the Bronx was 100 years ago.

The real estate lobby has a ton of money and they use it.

What would you give as your strongest arguments for people to care about housing and get involved?

Well, you can’t do anything really without a roof over your head. There are people living in shelters who go to work every day, there are kids living in shelters who go to school every day. But it’s very difficult.

Housing is not, in my view, a luxury item. People need a place to live. Some people think the market should take care of it. There will never be a perfect tango between supply and demand the way the marketers think there will be. You will never have enough housing in a place like New York City to go around for everyone who needs it. You will always have an imbalance. The only way you would have that is if there were a national depression and people started moving out of the city. God forbid.

People want to live here. They come here and they want to live here. They come here from all over the country, they come here from all over the world. And in some cases they come here with a lot of money and in other cases they come here with no money and they end up eight to a room in a basement in Queens. So, you know, that’s not going to change. We’re going to be a magnet.

And as good as it is that the Bloomberg administration is embarking on a plan to build new housing, they’re being very shortsighted in the need to preserve the affordable housing that we have. The mayor is never going to build as much as we are losing. It’s not that the housing disappears, it just becomes unaffordable.

Is it just politics to them?

I think the mayor fundamentally believes that the city would be better off without rent regulation. I think he really thinks that the market would do a better job. I think he’s fooling himself but I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what the man believes.

How would you rate the tenant movement today?

I think the tenant movement is amazing for hanging on in extraordinarily difficult circumstances….

This last year for the first time we succeeded in making a lot of new groups, that had never ever dealt with the Rent Guidelines Board before, ever, understand why they should pay attention to this board [which determines how much rents will go up in rent regulated apartments]. And they did.

The board had a historical practice of having daytime hearings in Manhattan. Who goes to daytime hearings? Elderly people. Younger people can’t go as a rule because they’re working somewhere. So consequently you’d have reporters writing, “A crowd of mostly elderly tenants blah blah blah.” We succeeded in bludgeoning the RGB into having nighttime meetings somewhere outside of Manhattan in a neighborhood like Harlem.

It’s a very different crowd and it’s a very different dynamic. I think some of the members of the RGB actually appreciated that and they were able to see a bigger picture by going to the Brooklyn hearing, the Bronx hearing.

You’re working on new things and still thinking about the fights. You’ve got a new group – Tenants PAC. You’re going to continue working on this stuff?

I haven’t really retired. It’s not a new group – we started Tenants PAC in 1997. But it was clear to me that if we were going to have a chance of having an impact on elections I had to free myself up to devote more time to Tenants PAC because I was essentially doing Tenants PAC in my spare time, of which I had none because my job at Tenants & Neighbors was like having two-and-a-half full time jobs. And I’m still doing things for Tenants & Neighbors as a volunteer, but I can pick and choose what I do. It has freed me up to concentrate more time on Tenants PAC to raise more money, to open an office and to really concentrate on a campaign in a way that we haven’t been able to do in the past because we didn’t have any staff. And I believe, and I’ve convinced a number of people in the tenant movement, that until such time that there is a change in Albany in terms of the political line-up there’s not going to be any chance of getting legislation.

The housing movement doesn’t seem to have high energy.

It’s a lot better than it was a couple years ago. People are much more motivated, I think. And there’s new people coming into the movement all the time.

Would you say you’re optimistic?

If I weren’t an optimist, I couldn’t do this work.

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  


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