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Combatting The Housing Crisis With The Crown Heights Tenants Union

Above photo: NYC tenants rallied at the Rent Guidelines Board meeting at Cooper Union in Manhattan. Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Wages remain stagnant and rents continue to climb nationwide with no end in sight.

A growing movement for tenant power is fighting to turn the tide in favor of workers against landlords and developers.

Some 34% of available housing stock in the US is rented by tenants, who number over 114 million people. Among tenants, more than 40% pay over 35% of their monthly income towards rent alone. As wages stagnate and rents rise, the fight against landlords, evictions, and developers becomes more urgent to the class struggle day by day. The Real News speaks with Esteban Girón from the Crown Heights Tenants Union on the housing crisis roiling America and how tenants can fight back.

Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mel Buer: Welcome back, my friends, to The Real News Network Podcast. I am your host, Mel Buer.

Housing in this country is a nightmare. To put it bluntly, over one-third, that’s 34% of available housing in this country is occupied by renters. In California alone, over 5 million people rent their homes and apartments. That’s 13.6% of the available 44 million homes in this country. That’s no small number. The vast majority of renters in the United States are between the ages of 29 and 44, and many of them rent an apartment with one or more roommates. Over 40% of tenants are paying more than 35% of their income toward monthly rent. With wages remaining stagnant and federal minimum wage still at a paltry $7.25 an hour, it doesn’t take long to see how skyrocketing rents create a serious problem for this nation’s working class.

In the past decade, tenants unions, activists, organizers, nonprofits, and legislative bodies across the country have made some strides in restricting the monumental control that landlords have over the market and closing long-exploited loopholes that leave tenants with little to no housing options or even homeless. But the struggle is still ongoing, and there is much work still to be done. With me today to discuss this is Esteban Girón, organizer and 10-year member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union in New York City. We are discussing the dire nature of the housing crisis in this country and what we as workers and tenants can do about it. Welcome to the show, Esteban. Thank you so much for taking some time this morning to talk to me about a very important piece of living in the United States which is our current housing crisis and what individual renters can do to try and alleviate some of the worst landlord practices in this country. So thanks for coming on.

Esteban Girón: Pleasure to be here.

Mel Buer: To start off this conversation, I wanted to take a moment to give our listeners a sense of, really, how dire the housing crisis is in this country. From your perspective, organizing in New York City, what sort of conditions are you seeing amongst renters?

Esteban Girón: Well, I’d say, in the last decade, there’s been this slow but steady degradation of the living conditions that we all happen to live in. In particular, rent-stabilized tenants. Just basic things are not getting done, buildings are falling apart, and at the same, time neighborhoods are gentrifying, and so there’s… Buildings are getting overvalued four or five times over, and they continue gaining value even as they start deteriorating. That’s for the people that are housed. We have a tremendous number of homeless individuals now that are a direct product of landlord greed as far as I’m concerned. Yeah. So the crisis is widespread, and it was before COVID even. So, you can imagine, as with everything else, it exacerbated that. So, yeah. It’s tricky. It’s hard to organize. It’s hard to organize around it.

Mel Buer: Yeah, I know. From where I’m sitting in Los Angeles, our homeless population is something like 62,000 individuals in the Los Angeles area are currently unhoused. I think a lot of folks are, especially in larger urban areas, feeling the squeeze from continuing to see higher rents. The market value apartments are skyrocketing, and the number of rent-stabilized units are dwindling, really.

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: I’m curious. In your organizing to this sort of wider vein, what are some of the unique challenges that renters in rent-controlled, rent-stabilized apartments are experiencing when it comes to not just deteriorating conditions, but how landlords treat them and what that relationship looks like?

Esteban Girón: Well, it’s interesting you say that because I think I tend to look at this through the lens of tenant power, and that’s the baseline thing that I guide, at least the work that I do. We made a big dent in that and a big shift in that interaction in 2019 with rent laws that were transformative and once in a generation. It took a lot of effort, had to do a lot of electoral work in addition to the regular organizing work, but we basically closed all, but a couple of loopholes that were decimating our rent-stabilized stock basically. We’d lost something like 300,000 apartments or something. Just insane.

I think there’s roughly over a million, a little bit over a million rent-stabilized units right now, and so we were losing everywhere. We were losing in housing court, we were losing… because the laws were just not conducive to tenants having any sort of power in the relationship. So what we started doing in the Crown Heights Tenant Union, and this is a decade ago, we started finding other ways to get what we wanted. So whether it meant shaming a landlord in the press, or going out, and talking to their neighbors, and passing out flyers in their neighborhood, or any sort of direct action stuff that was not… We weren’t doing anything illegal, but we weren’t really operating as like we’re going to win something in housing court or even in the legislature.

I think that’s always going to be true. Rent stabilization itself was one after a lot of… Well, I mean, actually, initially, it was price control set for the war, but New York City has had some version of that because of every generation, there seems to be a tenant movement that realizes this is the way, and then moves forward from that. So, yeah. That was four years ago. The change has been, like I said, transformative, the fact that we’re not really losing units anymore in the way that we were before. You can imagine like when you have the ability to take a rent-stabilized unit to market rate, sometimes doubling the rent, everything that a landlord does is going to be… like a tenant has a target on their back because they just want them out of there.

So a lot of stuff you can’t even really quantify with data because it’s like how do you quantify how many people just get annoyed with their landlord or get harassed out of their apartment? A lot of self-eviction in this sort of thing. So it was a really dire situation, and it’s been really hard to defend too. Landlords are there right now in front of the Supreme Court trying to get the 2019 rent laws reversed, and they’re still trying to push the legislature, and they’re still trying to build a narrative that makes it out to be landlords are suffering. We know that’s not true, so.

Mel Buer: Right. I mean, renters are suffering.

Esteban Girón: Renters are always suffering. Yeah.

Mel Buer: Yeah. You hear some pretty wild stories about the lengths that landlords will go to get individuals to vacate their rent-controlled apartments in Los Angeles which is the thing that I’ve been paying attention to a lot. You hear a lot of stories from the LA Tenants Union about individuals who have scary mob-looking men knocking on their door every day.

Esteban Girón: Oh, yeah, that happens.

Mel Buer: Trying to intimidate them to leave, offering absurd sums of money to get them out of the apartments, right? Sometimes as much as $100,000 which is wild to me.

Esteban Girón: We’ve seen $250,000 for buyouts before. Yeah.

Mel Buer: Right, and there’s no guarantee you’ll see that money once you leave, you know?

Esteban Girón: Right.

Mel Buer: It’s the principle of the matter, right? This rent stabilization is meant to ensure that folks stay housed, right? Landlords are doing everything they can to circumvent those laws and to… I think it’s really important to note that the tenants unions and the legislative efforts that have been happening in New York are an important blueprint for how to work on a wide variety of fronts to protect tenants from these aggressive, manipulative, exploitative landlords. Right? It’s something that can be replicated.

Esteban Girón: The thing about it that I think makes it interesting is that we realized the value and the need for not just at the building level having some organization, but then being able to translate that into a statewide or even national focus, and that’s… You do the incremental changes within the context of the law, and they’re absolutely necessary, but in no way does it trump the value of just knowing my neighbors and knowing my neighborhood. Both things have to be there, and I think that’s the thing that tenant unions are doing now. I think that’s the thing that we’re doing well is figuring out how to do all those together. Sometimes we mess up, and sometimes we don’t give enough focus to certain things. But overall, I’d say over the last 10 years, it’s really been… Just in retrospect, it’s actually been pretty successful, I think.

Mel Buer: Yeah. To that point, I mean, in Teddy Ostrow’s most recent article for The Real News, New York’s Tenant Unions Are Playing The Long Game, you spoke on the importance of building community-wide tenants unions to help combat this rising tide of pro-landlord, anti-renter policies. You said, and I quote because I think this is a really important quote for our listeners, “I think the goal of any tenant unionist is, ultimately, a city-wide, neighborhood-wide, statewide tenant union that has sufficient power to be able to force a lot of landlords to do what we want them to do.” Let’s unpack this just a little bit for our listeners because I think it’s a really important piece of this. Right? We have, really, a diversity of tactics in trying to combat these anti-renter policies in order to really stabilize or improve the material conditions of working-class renters which is the vast majority of individuals.

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: The housing crisis is for us and our millennial generation for individuals who are younger.

Esteban Girón: Oh, yeah. We came into this whole thing. Yeah.

Mel Buer: Yeah. The hope that we have is being able to pay our rent, right?

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: The idea of buying a house is a pipe dream.

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: So what does that mean for us, and why is it so important for renters to organize these tenant unions? What does this do for the strength of a community, for example, or the ability to push back against this exploitation?

Esteban Girón: So I think one thing to just put out there as a baseline is that I found my way to socialism as a concept exclusively through the work that I was doing as a tenant organizer. It happened fairly quickly, and nothing else made sense in that context anymore. I hadn’t read any theory. I didn’t know any… but I could tell that there was that, that like, “Yeah, this is capitalism gone really bad,” and it was so plain because the way that landlords operate is just like the absolute worst of the worst capitalist. So, yeah. I mean, I think we have organized, in a way, that yes, build community. I remember feeling like this was the first time that I had ever lived in a neighborhood anywhere in my life that I knew so many people when I left the building and that I had a real sense of grounding that I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and I couldn’t imagine even moving out of my apartment because, of course, once you have a rent-stabilized apartment, that’s the lowest price that you’re ever going to pay for an apartment.

One of the things that we try to get people to do is to just put down roots and just… because what happens in gentrification here in New York, and LA, and other places is that the landlords are able to continue increasing rents by renting to transient younger folks. So if you can get some of those folks to put down roots, then you’re already combating the problem. If you can get folks to not take a $250,000 buyout, that completely shuts down a landlord’s business model, and that’s what we’ve been trying to disrupt because the systems right now are so, so heavily favored to landlords. It’s the way that property works in, really, everywhere in the world. There’s really no borders for this anymore.

You’ve got Blackstone, and Akelius, and huge corporations that are doing the same thing to us that they’re doing in Spain, that they’re doing in Australia. It’s become such a universal problem, and it’s not even just apartment buildings. Single-family homes are dealing with the same thing. So I think the idea of a tenant union, at least for us, and we started in 2000… Crown Heights Tenant Union started in 2013. I joined maybe two months later as part of that, and what we thought would be, and I still believe this is the way, is if we can get a strong local organization and we can get this replicated in different neighborhoods in New York, then we can put together something citywide, and then at that point, try to replicate it in other cities, and then bring it statewide.

The Autonomous Tenants Union Network is all of North America, so there’s some sense of that, but the nonprofits, the way that nonprofits do this work probably worked well at some point in the last 50 years, but it really stopped working, I think, after the financial crisis like that’s… It’s not the same, and the nonprofit model is obviously severely lacking as far as we’re concerned, and we constantly fight against it. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re not even incorporated. We value our independence from not only politicians, but we don’t take foundation grants, for example, because we don’t want to have to do stuff that is not what we actually want to do.

We don’t want to have to answer to anybody in terms of what tactics we’re going to use and all of that, and so that’s the value, I think, of autonomous tenant unions is that the tenants are always guiding. We don’t have staff, and we don’t have a hierarchy, so we are very much… Anybody can be making the decisions, and we’re doing them collectively, and we’re doing it together. If folks are interested in reading about unions like ours, the website is atun, A-T-U-N, -rsia.org, and that’s actually Autonomous Tenants Union Network. What is the Spanish? The RSIA is the Spanish part of that.

Mel Buer: Mm. Yeah.

Esteban Girón: It was started by the LA Tenant Union as well. Yeah. I mean, we organized around some points of unity saying that we believe that tenants are… Anybody that’s not housed or doesn’t have control over their own housing is a tenant. That could include people that have a mortgage. That could include elderly folks living in a nursing home. Basically, anybody that does not have control over their own housing. Then, I think a really key thing which Teddy speaks about in the article is reorienting around a tenant as opposed to housing. So we don’t consider ourselves a housing organization because it’s not about feeding into this already existing capitalist system of housing like, “We want to do away with that.” The point is tenant power. It’s within us. So like that. That’s actually a really… It seems like a small thing, but it’s a significant variation from what happened.

So, yeah. We have these… not rules, but just things that we agreed to. I don’t remember how many exactly, how many tenant unions now there are, but we’re in Wisconsin, we’re in Vancouver, we’re in Texas, we’re obviously in California. The two of the biggest ones are LA Tenant Union, and then TANC, which is Tenant and Neighborhood Council in the Bay Area. I actually went to LA last year, year and a half ago maybe for the first big convention that we did for this, and it was just amazing, the fact that I can organize in a building with 50 units in New York City and actually have so much in common with literally a tenant union of 10 people from West Virginia.

That, to me, is the real test of like, “Does this work? Is this replicable? Can we do this in a larger scale?” It is. It really is, but this is… 10 years is not very long in the trajectory of how long landlords have been in charge of all of this and what kind of power they have, but we’re chipping away at it. I think there’s no other way right now. I don’t think that there’s a… Whether it’s the nonprofits or political considerations, I don’t think that, really, anybody has a good answer right now for what to do about the crisis other than organizing from the base up. I think that’s the point, organizing from the base up. There’s been these pushes to have a statewide tenant union before having the base for it, and that’s the opposite of how it should work. I know there’s a lot of parallels with the labor movement too, you know?

Mel Buer: Yeah, yeah. Teddy talks about this a lot in his article where that you can see these democratic reform movements in various business unions where you are switching the narrative from a top-down organization to one that takes its cues from the bottom-up, and I think that’s a really important distinction to make. I also think you made a really good distinction about the restraints that nonprofit housing initiatives have in building tenant power and actually challenging some of the landlord status quo. You know what I mean?

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: To speak to that, you’re right, I think that there is something… Nonprofits do have to take their cues from what they can and cannot organize for as ostensibly political organizations. There’s a lot of rules for how you get your nonprofit status, and your funding is paramount, and so you really have to pick your battles. What can that particular tool in the toolbox do? Perhaps homeless individual outreach needs more of a boost from a foundation grant than something else, right? I think you are correct as well that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a housing crisis that is centuries in the making in this capitalist country, right?

You also make a good point, and this is an optimistic thing to maybe hang our hat on here, is that every successive generation seems to have a successful or at least lasting enough legacy of housing movement that responds to the specific conditions of that particular generation. We are experiencing some of the same. You and I both know that housing market has not been the same since 2008, that the same opportunities afforded to our parents 40, 50 years ago doesn’t exist now. So those specific economic conditions are unique to our own shared existence, right? So the solutions to that are going to look a little bit different. I was fortunate enough to spend time with members of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network. I went to the Socialism Conference last year as part of doing this coverage.

Esteban Girón: Oh, yeah. I was on a panel for that.

Mel Buer: Yeah. I was there for your panel. Yeah.

Esteban Girón: Oh, nice, nice.

Mel Buer: Yeah, yeah. I got a chance to really hang out and see how each tenant union for all of their similarities in terms of what you guys are organizing against or for. Everyone’s got a little bit of a different take on how that works, right?

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: I think of the older elders from Kansas City who are speaking to specific things that are happening in Kansas City, for example, or what the much younger radical activists are doing in LA with the way that they organize their tenant union. There is space there, and if you are stuck under the model of the nonprofit model or the top-down model, that type of variety, that type of ability, the space to be able to fill in gaps as needed from the grassroots level can happen, you know?

Esteban Girón: The flexibility, yeah, that-

Mel Buer: Exactly.

Esteban Girón: The word I’m looking for is not even “flexibility,” but the sort of-

Mel Buer: Dynamic needs?

Esteban Girón: Yeah.

Mel Buer: Yeah.

Esteban Girón: The ability to put your feet anywhere that they’ll land, and try new things, and see that things don’t work or see what does work. One more thing about the cross-section between labor and housing is that you’re dealing with, essentially, the same rank and file like the workers are the tenants are the workers are the tenants. That is also, I think, instructive that we’re getting more radicalized folks in the housing movement because within labor, there’s this surge of rank and file organizing. There’s organizations within the unions that are pushing for change, and then you’ve got Amazon and Starbucks, and the newer wave of… the really exciting wave of labor that I think is turning everything on its head.

Even with legal stuff, we face some of the same stuff. There’s a lot of push. I think in California and San Francisco, for example, there’s a push to legalize, in a way, organizing and define what a unit is, and basically, do what National Labor Relations Board does, basically, and we’ve actually pushed against that because that takes away the flexibility. That means that we can’t, for example, organize two families that are living in a home that’s not a big building. Usually, these laws put some restrictions on the number of units and that sort of thing, and it just tries to box everything up in a way that’s tidy, and I think that’s… Ah, nimble. “Nimble” was the word I was looking for, the ability to just… LATU is actually a really great example of that because the variety of types of housing that they organize around is so… I was there for the weekend, and I saw so many different situations that you have to approach, in some ways, very differently, and in other ways, it’s the same thing.

The root is still talking to your neighbor because that’s who’s going to know about what your landlord is doing and getting together with more neighbors because our foundational thing is the rent strike. That’s ultimately what can cause the change, and the rent strike requires that you have some sort of leverage on a landlord just like any strike does, and that’s easier to do in a 50-unit building than it is in a small two-family home, but you get enough two-family homes owned by the same landlord, and you’ve got a rent strike. You can do it.

Yeah, 2008 really changed the… not just all over the country, but the way development would happen here in New York. That’s another area that we are super involved in. There’s this push to build more housing. There’s a very supply-side-driven push from… The acronym is YIMBY versus NIMBY which is Yes In My Backyard. People say that all you have to do is build more market rate housing, more luxury housing, and then the people that are income-eligible for that will take that, and then the poor folks will be able to fill in the housing, and it’s this whole trickle-down… repeat of trickle-down economics, and it doesn’t work.

That’s the thing that changes the neighborhood. That’s what brings the gentrification. So it’s amazing to look back and see all these different things that we had to get involved in. I couldn’t just get involved in my tenant union. I had to start going to community board meetings, and now, I sit on the land use committee of my community board. It’s like you don’t think about having to do those things, but you really got to keep an eye out because there’s just so many forces working together to shut you down and to work around you, and they’re very good at it. They’re really very good at it.

I think what we’re developing now with the Autonomous Tenant Union Network, and we actually have on… I think on March 3rd. Yeah. March 3rd, we have our… We’ve been trying to do an annual conference, and so we’re doing a virtual one this year. Anybody can go to the website, sign up, and a couple of days of workshops with different tenant unions. There’s skill sharing. I look at that, and I think about the possibilities of thinking of something like National Rent Control, or Homes Guarantee, or some sort of model of social housing that would be transformative for the entire population and that we could do that at a… not just the state level, but on a national level.

Again, in my opinion, that requires the ability to have both nonprofits that have the institutional support, that have the money, the staff to do a lot of this stuff. We don’t pay for buses to go to Albany. We hop on the bus with the nonprofits that are paying for it. So there’s a symbiotic relationship that happens there. They take us to Albany, and then we can yell at the politicians in ways that they can’t. We’re going to have to be able to do that on a national level, and some of that already started happening like when the landlords challenged the 2019 rent laws in the Supreme Court. There’s still one case that’s outstanding, and it’s actually my landlord is the person… one of the plaintiffs in that case. Yeah, it’s a mess.

The thing about it was that it threatened LA’s rent control and the Twin Cities’ rent control because it essentially is trying to end rent control as a thing in New York. If that happens at the Supreme Court, that applies to the entire country, and so we found ourselves in a situation where it was like, “All right. Now, we’re all in the same boat. This could affect everybody.” I think we’re close to clearing that. We cleared three cases, two or three cases already that they rejected, and we have one more that we have to get through, but it’s a good indication that this is globalized, nationalized. We’re all dealing with the same landlords, and they’re conspiring against us in much the same ways. So it can be overwhelming. It can be really overwhelming.

Now that you’ve mentioned that, I have this poster. This was made by one of the people that was on that panel, and it says, “Hands off. Decommodify all housing,” and it’s like a cute little… I think that’s what is, now, the next horizon for… For us, we tend to be a little bit more… We tend towards believing that this can be done in a municipal level, at a level of the state actually running and creating this housing. There’s some benefits to things like a co-op or a community land trust that’s jointly owned by the people, but really, at the scale that we need to be able to do it, we need to be able to do it. The city has to be able to do it, the state, the federal government, and not in the way that they did with public housing where they starved the funding for that and crippled it.

I think there’s possibilities to do that. We’re spending the money already. In New York, we were spending billions of dollars in tax breaks to build luxury housing when we could have just been building it ourselves. We have the land. We could have been doing it with unions. So that is the next I think… how we get out of this situation that we’re in with landlords because it might seem like a pipe dream, but there’s no future where landlords exist and tenants still have power. That’s never going to happen. That can’t be what we’re fighting for.

I think that’s the other thing that nonprofits tend to… They tend to focus really specifically on one law, or one housing court, or whatever it is that’s like one little piece of the larger system, and I think that it’s really important that there be part of the movement that is looking beyond that. It’s just like saying like, “When do we win socialism?” Right? You have to have the people that really have in their mind like, “We need to get to that next space.” Then, you have the other people that are pragmatists that are really making sure that as we’re getting to that space, we are still protected, that we’re still able to live and-

Mel Buer: Yeah. I mean, the struggle continues, you know?

Esteban Girón: Yeah. Absolutely.

Mel Buer: Just as a final parting thought before we wrap up. I think what you and your fellow tenant organizers are engaged in is an extremely important part of improving the material conditions of the working class in this country. Despite the struggles, despite the major hurdles and the flaming hoops that everyone has to jump through in order to reach that sort of stability, even in the last 10 years, the work you’ve done is amazing, right? No contribution is too small in furthering this project and moving towards much more equitable, and stable, and beautiful living conditions for everyone in this country, so.

Esteban Girón: It can happen. It can happen.

Mel Buer: It can happen, and I really want to thank you for taking the time to come and talk about this. Please come back on the show anytime to talk about the work that your tenants union is doing or work that the ATUN is doing. I will be signing up for that conference. I’m really excited to see the kind of work that you’re doing.

Esteban Girón:
Yeah. There’ll be some Spanish language stuff that a lot of people will be doing. A lot of people… the largest, the one that they’re doing, the biggest right now, and yeah, lots of admiration for what they’re doing. So, definitely, folks should check that out. There’s some really great workshops that are happening and that are really practical. It’s basic stuff. It’s not even like the Socialism Conference where you’re talking about these big ideas. This is like-

Mel Buer:
Overall. Yeah.

Esteban Girón: This is like, “How do you knock on a door? How do you…” Just the very basic stuff, and I think everyone needs it. I think a great thing is like… to think about Teddy who wrote this article that I didn’t even realize that he was in the union at this point as he was doing this research, and I had met him before. I had seen him at an auction before. Everybody is in this. We’re all in this situation. We’ve got to start realizing that there’s not these clean, defined lines. The working class is broad, it’s diverse, and we are eventually going to win. There’s just too many of us not to, you know?

Mel Buer: That’s true. That’s a great… yes, a great way to end this. Before we go, where can we find updates with your union, or where can we find the sign-up for the conference?

Esteban Girón: So, the conference, again, that’s atun-rsia.org, and that’s the Autonomous Tenant Union Network. You can click on the navigation bar there that says, “2024 Virtual Convention.” It’s just a Zoom link that you can register with. For us, probably our strongest presence is on Instagram. You can just type in “Crown Heights Tenant Union,” but also, crownheightstenantunion.org or info@crownheightstenantunion.org. Anybody can reach out. We are very local, but again, if you’re having issues and you want maybe a referral to a group that’s working in your area or just want some advice on something, definitely, reach out to us. We’re here to use whatever we’ve learned in the last 10 years to support everybody in this fight. It only helps us to have people in Wisconsin that are doing this, and so it gets us a little bit closer to where we want to be. Yeah, crownheightstenantunion.org. Please check it out.

Mel Buer: Great. Thanks so much for coming on, Esteban.

Esteban Girón: Absolutely.

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