Housing Issues an Undercurrent at ‘Occupy Wall Street’

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests that began in Zuccotti Park in September have captured the imagination of the world with their outcry against economic injustice, against the domination and greed of the rich.

“This movement is pretty much the civil-rights movement of our generation,” says Frankie, a 33-year-old adjunct college professor from Brooklyn, sitting on a bench in the park on a Saturday in late October. He asks to remain anonymous to protect his job.

“My parents have a sixth-grade education, and they probably have a better life than I do, and I have a graduate degree and I’m a professional,” he says. “Most of the universities are not looking to hire full-time.”

He fits into a large demographic bloc among the Occupy Wall Street protesters—people in their 20s and early 30s, underemployed, burdened with student-loan debt, and, if they live in New York City, paying rents inflated by years of deregulation and lax enforcement against illegal increases. “It doesn’t matter how much money you’re making in New York—$100,000, $30,000, $50,000,” he says. “Nobody is making enough money to pay rent.”

Yet among protesters who feel secure about being able to afford their housing, bigger, more general economic injustices overshadow the specific ones of high housing costs. “It’s not one of the main issues,” says Phil, 25, of Bushwick. Even though he agrees that New York City rents are “out of control,” he’s more focused on “corporate personhood” and the amount of corporate money in politics.

“Unregulated Wall Street destroyed the economy, and there are huge cuts to health care because of it,” says Miriam Stanley, 47, of Manhattan, a poet who works with the mentally ill. “The right wing wants to privatize Social Security, and hard-working people are losing their pensions.” But as for high rents, she says, “I’m very lucky.”

Economic inequality and student loan debt are the issues motivating Neil, 33, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and works in the film and TV industry. But high rents aren’t affecting him, “not now.” Gene Moramo, 35, a Web designer from Brighton Beach, is mainly concerned about “social injustice,” but the $2,000 a month he and his wife pay “doesn’t bother me in particular. I can afford it.” A few minutes later, though, he says, “even though I’m able to afford it, it still bothers me a lot.” His last apartment went from $1,300 to $1,500 in four years, he explains.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alexandra Gonzalez, 35, of Brownsville, a widowed mother supporting her four children on a $15-an-hour job as a medical assistant. Even in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, she says, “everything’s $1,000, a thousand-five hundred, $1,700. Rent is so high, the money’s so low, face reality.”

“Honest families don’t want to go out and do bad things,” she says. “We want to get paid for the hard work we do. We want to have a choice in life.” She’s holding up a sign demanding a $20-an-hour minimum wage.

“I’m a teacher, and I can barely make my own rent,” says Megan Wasnieski, 24, who pays $1,650 for her Bay Ridge apartment. “It’s the number-one concern of the parents I see.”

She works at a special-education high school in Brooklyn, and is standing on Broadway with a sign reading, “I’m a TEACHER, not a jobless loser.”

Ray W., a 20-year-old ironworker from Gravesend, has similar sentiments. His sign reads, “I have a full-time union job. Stop telling me to get a job!”

Rent doesn’t affect him that much, he says, because he’s single and “found a pretty good deal.” Still, “every month, half my money goes to bills.”

His main concern is pay cuts. “Billionaires who own multiple buildings are saying they don’t have enough money to pay the union workers a livable wage,” he says. This has forced construction workers to give up $8 an hour to cover vacation pay and annuities, he explains.

“You try paying rent in New York on seven or ten dollars an hour,” says Rosa Adams, 32, of Manhattan. She’s seen friends and relatives leave the city and move down South or to Ohio because it’s cheaper.

“I’m completely against the top one percent having so much that could really help the people at the bottom, with education, with health care,” says Rebecca, a 21-year-old college senior who grew up in the East Village. “And we really don’t have any government leadership.”

Do high rents affect her? “Not yet,” she answers. “They will in about six months, and I’m terrified.”

For the tenant movement, this raises the question of how to connect our issues to the larger outcry against the greed of the rich, their rampant speculation that crushes the people and destroys the communities in its path, and their ability to buy government.

That framework perfectly describes the depredations of predatory equity, buying scores of buildings at inflated prices and trying to make a profit by driving out tenants who’ve been there for years. It perfectly describes the way rising rents are forcing young people to pay rents that far exceed their incomes and displacing longtime residents and small businesses in many of New York City’s neighborhoods. It perfectly describes the way the real-estate lobby has stymied efforts to strengthen the state’s rent laws, with its ownership of the Republican Party and ability to buy both pettily corrupt and politically ambitious Democrats.

This should be a natural connection. In New York City, rent regulations, public housing, and programs like Mitchell-Lama weave the housing cords in the economic safety net that the rich have been slashing for 30 years and now want to shred. Here and in other cities such as Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, controls on the rental market are essential to ensure that people who aren’t millionaires can afford to live on the limited amount of land. And like the other means of shredding the economic safety net—two-tier wages, eliminating pensions, and proposals to cut Social Security and raise the age for Medicare—the deregulation of rents most affects the young, as it denies them protections they’ve never had as adults on their own. These are all a deliberately divisive political alternative to taking things away from people who already have them.

To succeed, the tenant movement must somehow ignite the same kind of grass-roots outrage that has caused the “Occupy” movement to spread to hundreds of cities and towns around the country and the world. That is hard to do in a society where many people accept the hand of the market as the hand of God, where they accept spending half their income on rent as inevitable—even though this represents a radical change from the recent past, one imposed by the same power elites that outsourced jobs, busted unions, and deregulated Wall Street.