Roberta Gold: tenants’ rights and equitable citizenship

Economic inequality has been making headlines, and so have mitigating measures like living wage bills, which have passed in several cities. There is no denying the importance of such reforms. But they address only one side —the income side—of hard-pressed Americans’ economic equation. On the outlay side, the major variable is the rocketing cost of housing. Amid this crisis we could learn from the history of an alternative approach to housing.

The mainstream approach is ownership, celebrated in media as “the American Dream.” Owner-occupied, single-family suburban housing became a norm after World War II as federal agencies teamed up with private businesses to lower costs and promote sales. The homeowner, in turn, assumed the role of normative, or “solid,” citizen. Postwar suburban development yielded appreciable benefits for many: new owners enjoyed low payments on their state-subsidized mortgages while building material equity and gaining cultural status as solid citizens. Builders and bankers made money hand over fist. So did the automotive sector, which supplied the cars needed to navigate the sprawling dreamscape.

But the ownership obsession also took tolls on individuals, groups, and democratic society. Blue-collar homeowners who faced sporadic layoffs lived in fear of losing everything if they missed a mortgage payment. People of color were usually dealt out of the home-equity game entirely by racist realtors, redlining banks and biased federal lending codes. Meanwhile tenants, who constituted majorities in many cities, were demoted to second-class status by an ideology that tied solid citizenship to property ownership.

Most recently, the rupture of the “housing bubble”—the spree of buying and selling at inflated prices—has wrought havoc not only on vulnerable individuals but also on the larger economy.

Were there alternatives? Yes, and a chief proponent was the tenants’ rights movement in New York City. Gotham’s tenant activists, my research has found, challenged the homeowner society’s practices and principles. Tenants pushed New York to enact the nation’s first bans on housing segregation. They also lobbied for rent regulation and affordable development, struck against landlord negligence, and protested the city’s “urban renewal” program, which called for bulldozing low-rent, racially heterogeneous neighborhoods.

Further, by claiming a say in all these matters of public policy, tenants challenged the equation of “solid citizen” with homeowner. They demanded equal citizenship. Indeed, some saw themselves as quintessential citizens of New York. “[T]he war [we] are fighting,” wrote one tenant council girding against urban renewal evictions, “must finally be won if our urban civilization is to escape catastrophe.”

Today’s tenant protections are weak compared to their 1940s forebears–a testament to the ascendancy of neoliberalism and the landlord lobby–but where they remain in force, they help maintain New York’s social fabric as one that includes poor and moderate income residents.  Further, they express civic principles: that tenants’ needs are as worthy as investors’ profit, and that the city is called to be something more than a pleasure dome for the rich. It is because these principles fare ill in an unchecked housing market that the market must be tempered.

Principles of tenant citizenship can be seen at work in Cooper Square, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Here a militant tenant committee not only foiled a Robert Moses bulldozer scheme, but also used a creative non-profit ownership arrangement to renovate and build low-income cooperative and rental apartments. Today these form an island of affordability and racial and class diversity in the area’s surging sea of gentrification.

Elsewhere apartment-dwellers took informal steps toward what is now known as “supportive housing,” that is, housing linked with social services for vulnerable residents. Nowadays supportive developments are professionally staffed and are recognized by urban policymakers as an important means to prevent homelessness and relapse among people struggling with drugs and other problems. But during the epidemic of housing abandonment in the 1970s, ordinary New York tenants who self-organized to improve their buildings also made it their business to look after neighbors who were elderly or sick. Through these and other actions I have researched, New York tenants sought to make stable, socially and civically connected lives as renters.

One hallmark of the contemporary inequality regime is the shifting of insecurity onto those least able to bear it. Thus, in the subprime mortgage fiasco, precariously-situated home-buyers paid the heaviest price, and the general citizenry was made to pick up the remaining tab via bailouts for banks.  (Banks, meanwhile, reaped the rewards of selling “derivatives” in which risk had been deceptively wrapped.) Tenants too are being pushed out every day by speculative owners who buy at inflated prices and jack up rents.

Redressing such inequity will require not only bars on predatory investment, but also measures to institute security–in housing as well as income. Occupy veterans and racial justice advocates are trying to protect vulnerable homeowners by rallying against foreclosures.  We should also protect tenants and expand the supply of affordable rental housing. Indeed, policy mavens are coming to a renewed appreciation of this sector. They could take a page from the history of New York’s postwar tenants who declared themselves full citizens by virtue of their social investment in neighborly relationships and city affairs.

Roberta Gold teaches history and American studies at Fordham University. She has been an active member of her tenants’ association in Harlem for twenty years. Her book When Tenants Claimed the City:  The Struggle for Citizenship in New York City Housing was released this spring.

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