Julia Salazar was another ousted tenant looking for a place to land when I sat down to interview her in mid-April.
Due to byzantine state regulations, the freshman state senator’s original district office near the Myrtle-Wyckoff subway station in Bushwick had been a temporary one. Now she was moving into another temporary space in South Williamsburg. Nonetheless, Salazar was confident that she would eventually obtain a permanent home for her district office.
For many of Salazar’s constituents in the rapidly gentrifying 18th State Senate District, the prospect of being displaced from their apartments is a menace with no end in sight. Salazar’s vow to be an unabashed fighter for their interests played a major role in her upset victory last year over Martin Malave Dilan, an eight-term incumbent who was seen by many as being too cozy with the real estate industry.
Both the youngest woman in the history of the state Senate and the first openly identified socialist to serve in the legislature in nearly a century, Salazar has kept her promise. While many Democrats want at most to shore up the patchwork of laws that cover currently rent-stabilized tenants, she is the co-author of the Good Cause Eviction bill that would expand rent law protections to almost every tenant in the state.
Sitting on a plastic table in the middle of her sparsely furnished new office space, Salazar described her journey from being an outsider to an insider, what’s changed in Albany and what hasn’t, and what it will take for tenants to win major victories that are within their reach for the first time in decades.
John Tarleton: The tenant movement is pushing an ambitious rent reform agenda this year. From your vantage point, what is at stake and why is it important that all nine planks in the tenant platform be enacted?
Julia Salazar: The political dynamic has changed profoundly in Albany in the last year, particularly in the state Senate. These nine bills collectively constitute Universal Rent Control. We believe housing is a human right and tenants across the state deserve basic protections from being evicted and facing homelessness. Currently, 100 New Yorkers per day are evicted. The housing crisis is like a sinking boat with many holes in it. If we only eliminate vacancy decontrol, we only plug one of the holes and we’re still on a sinking ship. If we only end the vacancy bonus or eviction bonus, we’re still on a sinking ship. We have to address all these loopholes and policies at once for all tenants to be protected.
One key change tenants are seeking is the elimination of the Major Capital Improvement (MCI) and Individual Apartment Improvement (IAI) loopholes, the stated purpose of which is to allow landlords to recoup the costs of improving their buildings. How do you respond to those who say that if those provisions are eliminated apartments across the city will fall into disrepair?
MCIs and IAIs are widely abused by landlords who sometimes use them to justify huge permanent rent increases, which lead to evictions when tenants are not able to afford the new rent after an MCI or IAI has been applied. There will always be a need for investment to maintain buildings. But given that tenants pay rent every month, the burden of maintaining a building needs to primarily be on the property owner and not on the tenants who didn’t make the investment to buy the property.
You’ve previously led a rent strike as a tenant. Can you talk about that experience and how it has shaped your understanding of what needs to be done today?
When I was a college student living in Morningside Heights, Harlem, I lived in an apartment that was not rent stabilized. I had roommates and the building was rapidly falling into disrepair because of a virtually absent management company and landlord. They weren’t adequately heating the building. They wouldn’t make urgent repairs we needed in order to live in a safe environment.
I sought out resources from the Metropolitan Council on Housing and the city and determined that we could withhold our rent in order to make management act. We held out our rent for a few months before management even noticed. They still refused to make repairs. We went to housing court and ultimately we won concessions from management. When it was time to renew our lease, they did not invite us to do so. The experience was a testament to how powerful it is to organize with your neighbors. It also underscored for me the need to systematically change the laws to protect tenants. You can’t do it one building at a time as we are forced to right now.
What has it been like to go from battling a single landlord to being a first-year lawmaker going up against the full might of the real estate industry?
The real estate lobby’s role in New YorkState politics is absolutely outsized. It’s been daunting to confront it up until this point. I was very deliberate in my campaign about not taking any money from the real-estate lobby or from corporations. And the movement is growing of legislators who are committed to not be beholden to real estate and who support publicly financed elections. Publically financed elections would in turn allow more people not beholden to run for office.
New York progressives have long hoped for the day that they could end Republican control of the State Senate. That day is here, but now it appears the Democratic supermajority in the State Assembly is under the sway of the real estate industry and is retreating from some of its past support for tenants. What’s your take on the situation?
By the end of this session, we’ll have a clearer idea of which legislators are really committed to representing their constituents. Some of them have been slow to respond to the demands of the public. This is the moment to do that.
The state capital is known for being an insiders’ club. Can that change?
It’s been really helpful for me that advocates are in Albany much more frequently. It’s really a different place than what I witnessed previously being an advocate and community organizer. There are many more people in the capital than there were before. It’s a constant reminder to all of us as legislators that the public is watching.
Should Democrats who drop the ball on rent law reform be primaried in 2020?
I think they should expect to be primaried. Voters have to be able to hold us accountable somehow. It’s healthy for us to have competitive elections. It’s indicative of increased access to our electoral process.
With the deadline for renewing rent laws coming up on June 15, how can New Yorkers get involved and what kind of impact does it have when they do?
It’s important that anyone who cares about this issue uses their voice and also joins forces with those who have already been organizing. Call or email your elected officials and emphasize that we need all of these rent laws and not just the few they may be comfortable with. I know personally it makes an impact on me if I have a flood of constituents calling for my support on specific legislation. My colleagues are hearing from constituents far more than they used to and it’s at the forefront of their mind all the time.
Looking beyond the immediate battle, as a democratic socialist what are your thoughts on how in the future more decent, affordable housing could operate outside of market logic and be put under social control instead of private control?
In the immediate term, tenant associations are really crucial to building collective power and protecting tenants. Just talking to your neighbors, getting involved in the movement for collective power, is really important. The organizations that provide necessary legal services for tenants are crucial. We need both legislative solutions and more community-driven ones. We want to see more community land trusts, more worker-owned businesses, less of an emphasis on private property as king.
Like healthcare, housing should be treated as a human right. We need to fundamentally challenge the practice of basing someone’s housing on their income and how much profit it generates for someone else who has more than they do. That is a long-term project, but in my mind that is not fundamentally separate from the immediate need to empower tenants. I think the latter is necessary for us to eventually create a more caring economy and a more equitable society.
This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.
Photo: State Senator Julia Salazar outside her district office in South Williamsburg. Credit: Erik Rist