Mayoral Candidates All Call Themselves ‘Pro-Tenant’

Four months before the June 22 Democratic primary, the 2021 Mayoral Forum on Tenants’ Rights on February 27 saw the nine main candidates to succeed Bill de Blasio depict a city saddled with high rents, lax enforcement of laws to protect tenants, and misguided systems to create affordable housing, with a consensus that the next mayor needs to do more to resolve those problems.

The forum, sponsored by Met Council Action, Tenants PAC, and Tenants and Neighbors, featured city Comptroller Scott Stringer; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn); former city housing commissioner Shaun Donovan; former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia; Wall Street executive Ray McGuire; social-service nonprofit director Dianne Morales; former mayoral counsel Maya Wiley; and Andrew Yang, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

All nine called for stepped-up code enforcement and better budgets to fund it, and also supported bills to increase tenants’ access to free lawyers in Housing Court. Only three — Menchaca, Stringer, and Yang — identified themselves as tenants. Asked a yes-or-no question, Donovan, Menchaca, Morales, and Stringer said they would refuse to take campaign donations from landlords and developers, while the other five did not. The candidates were split on whether they supported a rent rollback: Donovan, Menchaca, and Morales said yes, Stringer gave it qualified support, and the rest were opposed.

All of the candidates expressed support for the basic principle of rent regulation, enforced through a framework of a “rent emergency” because the vacancy rate is below 5 percent, but they had different opinion about what should change and what should stay the same. Several, including Wiley and McGuire, called for expanding rent subsidies implemented through regulation, though they did not make it entirely clear how that would be accomplished. 

Multiple candidates pledged that as the five “public members” of the city Rent Guidelines Board constitute a majority, they would appoint public members who took protecting tenants as their first priority. McGuire argued that it was crucial to have “appropriate representation for New Yorkers who live in rent-regulated apartments.” Yang praised the RGB for freezing rents last year. Adams suggested that the board should be staffed with economists who would be better equipped to address the city’s changing economic fortunes. Stringer argued that the process was bent in favor of owners, claiming that “you can see the data being manipulated on behalf of landlords.” 

All argued that they were uniquely able to understand and address the needs of New York renters. McGuire and Yang both contended that their experience in private enterprise gave them the managerial skills necessary to guide the city through difficult housing conditions. Morales, Stringer, and Wiley cited their histories as community organizers working with tenant groups. Wiley and Adams stressed their experiences witnessing homelessness and displacement in their communities. Stringer expressed pride in his advocacy for tenants throughout his political career, particularly while serving in the state Assembly. 

On public housing, the consensus was that the New York City Housing Authority is both underfunded and inefficient. Stringer, Morales, and Menchaca all called for various types of tax increases to fill NYCHA’s budget shortfalls. Yang argued that strict regulations prohibit NYCHA from purchasing and revamping much cheap real estate, and that easing these rules would create many more opportunities for inexpensive development. But he praised NYCHA as one of the few vehicles for truly affordable housing in the city. 

“In New York City we’ve become conditioned to what the real-estate developers define as affordable housing,” he said. “Affordable housing should be based on what human beings consider affordable.”

Homelessness was also a key issue. Several candidates asserted that one cause of it is the loss of rent-regulated apartments over the previous decades, which has made it harder for low-income New Yorkers to find stable affordable rents. Several candidates suggested that vacant or abandoned properties could be bought or seized under eminent domain and converted into housing for the homeless, either permanent or transitional. Morales attacked the shelter system as “warehousing” that did not solve underlying problems and was both “expensive and ineffective,” a sentiment echoed by Garcia. 

Donovan argued that his work as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama made him uniquely qualified to help the city’s more than 90,000 homeless people. He argued that there was a homelessness pipeline created by those leaving prisons or mental institutions without any place to live, and called for a monitoring system that would track people leaving those systems to ensure that they did not end up on the streets. 

“Housing is a human right, and everybody in New York deserves a place to live,” Morales said.

“She and Councilmember Menchaca generally took the strongest pro-tenant stances. Menchaca, who dropped out of the race on March 24, repeatedly challenged the other candidates with his endorsements of a more activist housing policy for the city, such as repealing state laws that prevent local governments from enacting more tenant-friendly rent regulations than the state’s. He specifically named the Real Estate Board of New York, the most prominent trade group representing the state’s landlords and developers, as the enemy of tenants and sensible reform. 

Menchaca also argued for making tenant protections more permanent, instead of subject to the whims of the state Legislature or the RGB. “We need more pro-tenant structures that don’t require immigrants and others to have to fight every single time there’s going to be a vote,” he said.

Several candidates took shots at Mayor de Blasio’s housing policy, particularly the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program, which provides tax breaks and other incentives for developers who include “affordable housing” in their new buildings. That program has been criticized because the definition of “affordable” is subject to debate and because it has appeared to exacerbate gentrification in lower-income neighborhoods. Morales claimed that MIH worsens instability by contributing to a “speculative market that commodifies housing.” 

“Unfortunately, the de Blasio administration made a deal with REBNY developers to put them in charge of low-income housing development,” Stringer said. “The problem is the housing ended up being unaffordable to most of our low-income communities.”