The lack of affordable housing is a crisis for working New Yorkers – and, increasingly, the labor movement has come to see it as a union issue. It will be high on our legislative agenda in 2002.
Labor and tenant groups have been working closely to develop a campaign to preserve and expand the city’s stock of affordable housing. On Dec. 13, activists in both movements met to discuss an ambitious campaign to have the city’s rent regulation laws renewed early, in 2002, and to assign responsibility for carrying it out.
And on Jan. 17, just after this issue went to press, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was to come to New York to announce details of major new pension fund investments to finance housing and commercial real estate development in the city’s five boroughs. The funds will also be used to provide affordable mortgages for union members and municipal employees. (More details will appear in next month’s Allegro.)
THE EXTENT OF THE CRISIS
While it’s clear that there is a housing crisis, it’s sometimes difficult to know how many people are affected. But the stake that 802 members have in preserving rent regulation is clear. More than 3,000 of our members and their families live in rent-regulated housing. Any further erosion of this housing stock would have catastrophic consequences for them. And unless the supply of affordable housing is expanded, other members – new to the city, or trying to strike out on their own – will not be able to afford to live within a reasonable distance of their work.
“We know how many 802 members are affected because Tenants & Neighbors provides a disk that allows you to quantify your members’ involvement in rent regulation,” President Bill Moriarity told participants in the Dec. 13 meeting. “When we matched the disk with our records, we found that well over 3,000 of the 7,300 Local 802 families who live within the jurisdictional boundaries of rent regulation live in rent-regulated housing – somewhere between 40 and 45 percent.”
Moriarity pointed out that “quantifying it in that way allows you to give the issue a political priority within your organization – with your membership, with your Executive Board – that it might not have if you don’t have those numbers.” And he stressed that “the troops for this battle should be union members from around the city.”
LABOR’S HISTORY ON THE ISSUE
Several speakers noted that the labor movement has historically played an important role in campaigns for affordable housing. Among them was Hector Figueroa, Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU Local 32B-J, which represents those who work primarily in residential buildings throughout the city. He spoke of his union’s growing awareness of the need to develop relationships with the tenant movement “because our members really need New York to be an affordable city. It used to be part of the agenda of the New York labor movement to struggle and to help build affordable housing. Under the present circumstances, which are even more urgent, we hope that we can again raise the flag of affordable housing, preserve the existing legislation, and also expand this system to make sure that New York doesn’t lose the status of being a working class city.”
Affordable housing is now the policy of the state’s labor movement, spelled out in resolutions adopted by both the New York State Federation and the New York City Central Labor Council, said Ed Donnelly, legislative director of the New York State AFL-CIO. He pointed out that the use of union pension funds is an important component of the program.
THE RENT 2002 CAMPAIGN
The immediate focus of activity is an ambitious plan to press for renewal of the rent laws this year – rather than waiting until 2003, when they expire.
Nick Unger, Director of Mobilization for the NYC Central Labor Council, pointed out that “2002 can be our year – but if we wait until January 2003, the sunset provisions of the year strengthen the landlords. I believe our main strength is that everybody needs affordable housing; it is not a narrow special interest.”
He described Rent 2002 as “a campaign to show our strength and connect it to the political season.” The first step, he said, is to get hundreds of local unions, community groups, tenant groups, faith groups, community and clergy groups, coalitions, to sign on – so that this campaign represents the vast majority of New Yorkers. “Then we show our strength through resolutions, targeted lobbying and by a massive showing of signs that say, ‘Renew Rent Laws Now.’ Union members have a big role to play in getting those signs into windows.
“We’re trying to set up a campaign where we show our strength big at a particular point and then roll that strength into the legislative session,” Unger said. “If the legislature doesn’t act to renew the rent laws before the end of the session, then we make ‘Where do you stand on rent laws?’ a big issue in the 2002 elections.” He noted that most groups don’t have a great deal to do in the campaign. “What they have to do is make sure that their group is in it. We’re asking you to take care of your own group – and that we coordinate together, to build our unity.”
Michael McKee, Tenants & Neighbors Associate Director, said, “Rent 2002 is a very ambitious plan – but if we don’t do this, we’re going to be in serious trouble in 2003. We can’t afford to wait until after the election to raise this issue.”
He noted that support from labor was extremely important in getting the rent laws renewed four and a half years ago. Now, he said, “We need labor to include tenant bills, particularly this bill, on your legislative agenda; to make renewal and strengthening of the rent laws in 2002 a priority; and to make this part of any lobby days that you do. We need unions to write letters to the governor and to the legislative leaders urging them to renew and strengthen the rent laws in 2002. We need you to mobilize your members and retirees to participate. We need people to attend community meetings and a gubernatorial forum in April. We think at least one, and probably more of the candidates, will participate – which makes it an issue in the election.”
McKee urged any union which hasn’t yet passed a resolution on affordable housing to do so. “Write articles about Rent 2002 in your union newspapers. Lend us phone banks. Help us with printing. Lend us a staff organizer for a month or two, to work with your members and help with outreach. And, of course, contribute funds. Labor’s financial help, especially in printing hundreds of thousands of posters, will be critical.”
802 members are urged to become involved in this campaign. For more information, contact Legislative Director Heather Beaudoin at (212) 245-4802, ext. 176.