The tenant movement suffered an enormous loss when Tom Waters died April 4, apparently from the COVID-19 virus.
A leading housing policy analyst and one of the most effective tenant advocates, Tom was our secret weapon. The reports that he authored as a staff member at the Community Service Society helped us win stronger legislation. A May 2019 report on the need for rent control in upstate New York was central to persuading the state Legislature to remove the arbitrary geographic restrictions that limited rent and eviction controls to the New York City metropolitan area, allowing upstate cities, towns, and villages to opt into the system.
I first met Tom Waters when he applied for a job at Tenants & Neighbors in the summer of 1999. He and his girlfriend, Hilary Callahan, had relocated to the Bronx after several years in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Tom had worked as an organizer in poor people’s campaigns and opposing the privatization of a public hospital.
We had started to recover from the Great Rent War of 1997, when Republican State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno famously declared that he would not renew the rent laws applicable to New York City and the inner suburban counties. With a tremendous effort, tenants won renewal of the laws, but suffered a staggering array of weakening amendments as the price. Tenants & Neighbors had ended the campaign with a serious deficit, leading to layoffs and belt-tightening. Struggling to recalibrate and rebuild, we were looking for a fundraiser and newspaper editor, and Tom was superbly qualified for both, having worked as a journalist in Madison, Wisconsin.
During the next four and a half years, we were officemates. When you share an office, you get to know each other pretty well. We mostly talked about the work, but also jazz and opera. And we talked politics, all the time. Tom had a deep knowledge of radical political and economic theory and history, subjects I only vaguely understood. He helped fill in gaps in my knowledge, often lending me books.
It quickly became apparent that Tom was much more than a fundraiser and editor. Unlike some directors of development, he understood that fundraising is part of organizing, and that to build an effective organization, the two functions must be viewed as the same. He was a brilliant writer and an even better editor. Everyone in the organization looked up to him.
One of my favorite memories of Tom Waters is a December 8, 1999 protest that Tenants & Neighbors organized outside the Sheraton Hotel, where City Council Speaker Peter Vallone was having a fundraiser for his 2001 campaign for mayor. Vallone had screwed tenants in 1994 when he pushed permanent vacancy decontrol through the Council, and earlier in 1999 when he passed a bill that let landlords off the hook for childhood lead poisoning. (Both have since been reversed.) Steven Spinola, head of the Real Estate Board of New York, had recently sent a letter to landlords urging them to contribute. Attendees at the $1,000-per-person event were to be serenaded by none other than Tony Bennett, a childhood friend of Vallone’s who grew up two blocks from the family’s home in Astoria.
Tom came up with the idea of writing parody versions of Tony Bennett hits, such as “I Left My Heart in the Landlord’s Pocket.” We rented a super-duper sound system, got a permit, and an hour before the Vallone fundraiser began, several dozen tenants were outside the Sheraton with posters and loud instrumental versions of Tony Bennett songs. You could hear us several blocks away. Some passers-by attracted by the music joined the rally, and we gained a couple of new volunteers that cold night.
The idea was for a bunch of us to take turns singing these parody songs over the microphone. I was supposed to sing Tom’s reworded “Cold, Cold Heart,” but faced with the reality of making a fool of myself in the middle of Seventh Avenue, I chickened out. I remember only Tom and Darrell Chronik having the courage to sing, and I will never forget Tom warbling, “When Joe Strasburg Loved Me.” These were his new lyrics to Tony Bennett’s tricky, very difficult “When Joanna Loved Me,” renamed after the president of the Rent Stabilization Association; the RSA and Strasburg were big Vallone supporters. (Vallone finished third in the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary for mayor, ending his political career.)
In 2003 Tom became the interim director of Tenants & Neighbors. He served in that capacity for more than a year, a very difficult time for the organization when we lost funding and endured staff layoffs and salary cutbacks. He did a terrific job. I was hoping that he would want to be the permanent head, but Tom told me that he wanted to go back to grad school and study statistics. Fortunately for the entire movement, he did. He later earned a master’s degree in political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and was close to earning his Ph.D. when he died.
Using his new skills, Tom went to work as a housing policy analyst at CSS in 2005. Collaborating with Victor Bach and, since 2017, Oksana Mironova, he wrote or cowrote numerous reports on various aspects of housing policy in New York City. His explications of the triennial city Housing and Vacancy Survey were invaluable. Among his subjects were the loss of affordable regulated and subsidized housing; the possibility of a new Mitchell- Lama housing production program; and periodic “Making the Rent” reports that documented the widening gap between stagnant tenant incomes and surging rents. A pet subject was the wasteful J-51 and 421-a tax-subsidy programs for market-rate buildings, which Tom believed should be eliminated and the funds redirected to produce low-income housing. He testified repeatedly on behalf of tenants at City Council, state Legislature, and city Rent Guidelines Board hearings.
Tom was a gentle and good-hearted person. He was generous with his time and skills, as well as patient, ready to answer policy questions and help organizers and others with research. A few days after he died, Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society told me as we were consoling each other on the phone, “No matter how difficult the topic I asked him to help with, no matter how ridiculous the timeline, he never said no.” This was everyone’s experience. Tom and I kept trying to figure out how to quantify the loss of rent-regulated housing since 1994. The best Tom could calculate, after many tries over several years, was somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 apartments, but he was never satisfied with the result. At a hearing of the Assembly Housing Committee last May, he testified that he had given up trying, that it was an impossible task given the opaque deregulation laws (which were repealed a few weeks later) and the lack of enforcement.
Thomas J. Waters was born September 6, 1963 in Far Rockaway, Queens. His family relocated to Massachusetts where he grew up. His undergraduate years were spent at Yale.
He is survived by his girlfriend, Hilary Callahan, and their son Daniel Watahan; his mother Rosalind Waters; and his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, Nick, Jane, and Leo Waters.
Katie Goldstein and Sam Stein wrote a beautiful tribute to Tom Waters for City Limits. “We will miss Tom as a movement researcher, but also as a friend,” they wrote. “We will miss his funny smile, his generosity, his brilliance, his kindness, his humor, his commitment, and his love for the Bronx, for his Episcopal church, for books, for operas and obscure bands, for picket lines, and for parties.” (You can read it at https://citylimits. org/2020/04/09/remembering-ourfriend- mentor-and-comrade-tom-waters/.)
Michael McKee is one of the founders of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition.