Housing Activists Raise a Ruckus in Albany as State Budget Talks Race to a Finish

Three busloads of activists and organizers from the Housing Justice for All coalition traveled to the state capitol to demand housing policies that benefit the many not the few.

Lachlan Hyatt Apr 1, 2022

Three busloads of activists and organizers traveled to Albany on Tuesday for a day of action advocating for Governor Hochul’s executive budget to include more funding for affordable housing initiatives across the state.

“Homes not jails!” chanted the dozens of activists demonstrating at the capital. “Oh the rent/ Oh the rent/ Oh the rent is too damn high!” They sang.

The activists were part of the statewide Housing Justice for All coalition and listed three concrete demands for the governor and the state legislature to enact: Pass stronger eviction protections, eliminate tax incentives for luxury real estate developers and expand rental assistance for people at risk of homelessness. 

The demonstrations came as lawmakers face an April 1 deadline they may not meet to complete the annual state budget. With contested policy issues like bail reform, casinos and an $850 million new stadium for the Buffalo Bills being hashed out, New Yorkers descended on the capitol building to make their voices heard on a variety of issues. In addition to activists with the Housing Justice for All coalition, members of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East held demonstrations in favor of increased pay for homecare workers, and immigrant rights groups pushed for expanded healthcare resources. 

“Homes not jails!” chanted the dozens of activists demonstrating at the capital. “Oh the rent/ Oh the rent/ Oh the rent is too damn high!” They sang.

According to their website, the Housing Justice for All coalition is a “movement of tenants and homeless New Yorkers united in our fight for housing as a human right.” 

Members groups in the coalition who participated in Tuesday included VOCAL-NY and NY Communities for Change, as well as tenant rights groups such as the Metropolitan Council on Housing and the Cooper Square Committee. Politicians such as New York State Senator Julia Salazar, Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, and Lieutenant Governor candidate Ana Maria Archila, all Democrats, were present and spoke at the demonstrations as well.

Filling three charter buses, activists rode up to Albany and quickly occupied the capitol building’s historic Million Dollar Staircase where a press conference was held explaining how Gov. Hochul’s proposed budget failed to address housing issues across the state. From there, the coalition marched to the capitol’s War Room where activists pulled out a variety of one and two-person tents, conducting a sit-in to block access to the governor’s office. Activists moved to block stairways and escalators in the center of the building before capitol police stepped in and arrested 12 organizers. 

Photo: Lachlan Hyatt.

At the top of the coalition’s demands was the passage of the Good Cause Eviction Bill, a bill currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would prohibit arbitrary eviction of tenants, expand opportunities for lease renewals and limit rent increases in market-rate buildings to 150% of the rate of inflation. While the bill has support from members of the state senate and assembly, Hochul has not yet taken a position on this tenant protection bill, much to the frustration of Housing Justice for All.

“A lot of people don’t understand what Good Cause really is, and they don’t understand that some landlords use underhanded methods of kicking a tenant out,” said Winsome Pendergrass of New York Communities for Change. “Half of the immigration population in New York City does not get a lease. You rent, you don’t get a lease, so that means you’re at the mercy of a landlord.”

Same Luxury Housing Subsidy with a New Name

Another key point of Tuesday’s demonstration was for Gov. Hochul to not only eliminate the 421-a Tax Incentive program, which she says she plans to do, but also stop Gov. Hochul’s replacement program, 485-w. 

The 421-a tax incentive program, a remnant from NYC’s 1970’s fiscal crisis that was created to promote real estate development, provides substantial tax cuts for developers and builders. While the program requires on paper that affordable units be built into developments to receive the exemption, opponents argue that 421-a only works to increase the city’s housing affordability crisis. Often, real estate developers use the program to create “affordable” units that are only accessible for families making six figures and loopholes in the program allow for some buildings to be constructed without any affordable units. Donald Trump famously employed the 421-a program to use tax breaks to fund the construction of Trump Tower.

To the activists at Tuesday’s demonstration, Gov. Hochul’s proposed 485-w program is little more than a “rebrand” with the same essence of 421-a that fails to fully address the severity of NYC’s affordable housing shortage.

“The 485-w program is not a solution,” says Alex Lee of the Cooper Square Committee, one of the oldest anti-displacement organizations in the U.S. “I think it’s another tool for gentrification. It’s going to raise rents in neighborhoods. It’s going to raise the property value in working-class neighborhoods.” Activists at the Capitol demonstrations insisted that the programs be ended and the $1.77 billion gained in tax revenue go directly into building affordable housing. 

Activists also called for the governor to approve funding for a proposed bill that would establish a Housing Access Voucher Program. HAVP would provide rent subsidies for New Yorkers who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.

To Milton Perez, an activist with VOCAL-NY and a Bronx resident who spent five years in a homeless shelter, the HAVP would help others avoid the long ordeal of homelessness he had to endure.

“We could do enough to provide services to anybody in the city that needs shelter, but they have no way out,” said Mr. Perez. “I’ve seen elderly people that died in the shelter, who had been there for years and they never got any help. So HAVP includes undocumented people, people up and down-state, and it’s more modeled after Section 8, so the benefits are more in line with what is needed.”

The New York state budget is expected to be passed in the coming week, when activists will see if any of their demands are met.

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