Last year, London-based housing writer, researcher and organiser Glyn Robbins spent six months living in the Bronx, learning about New York City's organised tenants movement. Ahead of him joining us on 15th June at an event we sat down with him to discuss what he learned during his stay in NYC, and what lessons can be drawn for tenant organising here in the UK.
What led you to go to New York to study the tenants movement there?
So it came off the back of 20+ years of involvement in housing campaigning in the UK, which led to an interest in the US. In 1999 Defend Council Housing, which I had been involved with since the beginning, were invited to a conference by an organisation called the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT). After some discussion, it was decided to send me - self-funded - to join the conference. I was delighted. I had the financial wherewithal to book a flight, they sorted out the hotel room; and off I went. This opened up a relationship that has continued ever since between NAHT and DCH. So that was the longer term background to it, and then my interest in US-UK housing developed from that point really, leading to me writing a book on it in 2017.
I suppose though, the real answer to your question is that I have felt for a long time that we in this country need to pay close attention to what is happening over there, because broadly speaking what happens there today is what is going to be happening here in five years time. It's not an absolutely golden rule, and obviously there are other countries, but if you look at the sweep of history and policy over those 20 to 30 years, there is a real clear pattern in my mind between the US and the UK. Take your field of interest, private renting. I remember vividly going to my first NAHT conference 22 years ago now. At that time the private rented sector in this country was relatively small - and had basically not shifted in all the time I had been paying attention. So I think it was still under 10% back then. Saying some of this to the people there, and explaining a bit about Council Housing and how that had always balanced up housing provision for working class people, and giving them that general outline - and them being somewhat amazed by the thought of 30% of UK residents being Council Tenants, and me being equally amazed at the proportion of private renting in the US, and the extent to which that has become a decisive factor in some places. Not all places, it is very geographically specific, but certainly in New York, which is a city of renters. It is still 2/3rds tenanted. And so, I was very interested in that.
So, I suppose I wanted to see what the tenant movement in New York was like, day to day, rather than this very small snapshot I get whenever I go to a NAHT conference. To be involved, and a part of it - albeit I was only ever a peripheral and a guest. To see, and I suppose this is what we need to talk about to some extent; are there things that they're doing that we could be doing here in terms of campaigning, in terms of trying to move this immovable object of neoliberal housing policy. Can we learn stuff from them? And, I have come back fairly firmly with the conclusion that we can.
There are differences, no question, and to some extent it is apples and pears. But obviously the underlying forces here are the same ones. And in some instances the corporate global landlords are the same ones. Literally. So you may be in Manchester fighting against the same slumlord that people in the Bronx are. That is entirely conceivable now. So there is potential for campaigns here and there to learn from each other, possibly to do joint actions - although that is difficult and we have tried in the past. If I come back with nothing else, it is that idea that the New York Tenants movement was making an impact. And I am not saying we don't - and I have been involved in a few victories over the years. But I think we have to be honest about it, and say we are losing more than we are winning at the moment - and how can we change that?
So to set the scene - what is the situation in New York historically? What is the history of its tenants movement? How has housing historically been provided, and how has that changed with the onset of the neoliberal era?
The history of all this is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating - you could just become a historian of it, if you weren't interested in what happens next. I think what the most important thing to say to people in Britain really, is that approximately 25% of New York City's housing is outside of the market. We have this vision of New York City as this uber capitalist, monolith, symbolised and personified by someone like Trump. While to some extent that is the case, in actual fact about a quarter of the population live in some combination of regulated or stabilised private renting. There are also about 175.000 homes within the public sector, i.e. public housing analogous to council housing. Latest figures is that a million New Yorkers live in public housing at the moment - and given the population is 8 million, it is very very significant. And then you also have this layer of legacy housing from the 1920s, 30s trade union movement in New York, which fought for and won thousands of homes. So for instance, where I lived in the Bronx, if I came out of my apartment and looked down the hill to the left, about a mile away there is this place called Co-op City, which is, as it sounds, it is run as a Co-op with sort of limited equity, so it is not a classic coop in the sense we might know it, but it's not market housing - thats for sure. This was built through the trade union movement, obviously with serious political support in the late 60s, and there are about 15,000 homes there. So it is a very, very big development. It is the biggest but there are a number of these places. Penn South is another one, just south of Penn Station, and then smaller ones - the Amalgamated is a very famous housing co-op which I did an event at when I talked about the connection between Rochdale and the co-operative housing movement in the US and New York especially. The Amalgamated is the longest surviving Trade Union rooted housing cooperative in the US, and it's in the Bronx. It will be celebrating its centenary in two years. So I think - yeah - the point really is New York City is not personified by Trump when it comes to housing, there is a lot of non-market housing that has been fought for and won over the years by the tenant movement - and today's tenant movement is an inheritor of that tradition.
I have recently reviewed a book called The Long Crisis, which is specifically about New York and it's neoliberal journey. So if we are thinking about the last 30-40 years, New York has shifted in a similar way to the UK. It went from a place where far more tenants were protected to some degree through stabilised rent, or rent controls - as we would more normally understand it. They had a greater level, if you like, of protection through being tenants 30-40 years ago than they do now. And of course the immediate parallel there is private renters in our country used to have assured tenancies, and very few of them do any more. Overall then there has been a move towards privatisation in general, and specifically towards conversion of what were formerly rent stabilised and rent regulated buildings towards becoming what they call 'condos', condominiums. We would generally understand them as a block with leaseholders in. There was a definite move towards that in New York - thousands of buildings went from being tenanted to becoming condos. And that is still happening.
So, there has been a shift from a tenanted population with rights, towards a tenanted population with fewer rights. The neoliberal vehicle was rolling, and then that has obviously partly fed, as it has here, is this astonishing kind of development frenzy where speculative property for various reasons but including the ability to exploit tenants more, charge them more, for less, steamed into the market in a very libertarian political context. With the likes of Mayor Bloomberg basically saying, yeah come on boys - doors are open, do what you like. And if you have the opportunity or people can go to New York now, to the city, the scale of redevelopment in some areas in particular is astonishing. I live in East London and we have seen a particular variant of this, as I know Manchester has, but you know, it's dwarfed, literally dwarfed by some of what is going on in New York City.
Obviously what that has produced is a very very unequal housing market, which feeds displacement, which makes tenants who might have felt somewhat secure, less secure, because the landlords and property developers are always looking for the next commercial opportunity. That often involves evicting people, essentially. And that has become the picture, and it is a deeply divided city. And often the fault line of that division is housing.
I would say that is also far more true of the UK now than it was 20 years ago. Especially younger people's lives are defined by housing, in a way that when I went to that first NAHT conference, they weren't. So this is a shift that has happened, and it is a shift that very much follows the footsteps of America generally, and New York in particular. But, alongside which there has been a kind of renaissance of tenant organising. Broadly speaking, what people like to call the “housing justice movement” over there, which is not a language we tend to use often, has ignited within the last 5 years or so, and won some really big and important victories.
The two obvious examples are, in 2017 they won something called “the right to counsel”. Which again, and this is a difference - so in this country, albeit that this is not always what happens in practice, tenants can be represented in court if they face eviction - they have that right. They don't have, they didn't have that right in New York City until 2017 when it was won, the right to Counsel. They are currently pushing for that statewide. And then two years after that they run a bunch of tenant right improvements, around security of tenure and rent control, in perpetuity. So they have had some big wins. I guess an analogy for us would be no fault evictions. There was a time when we were pushing hard on that, which was a very important campaign I felt, Generation Rent and others were getting behind it. If we were to win in this country an end to no fault evictions, then it would be on a similar scale to what they have won, obviously it has a catalysing effect.
So the tenant movement has grown. The alliance that I was associated with was called Housing Justice for All. And again, this is an important difference. Housing Justice for All is organised across the whole of New York State, not just New York City. So that is an area approximately the size of England and Wales, with a population of 20 million. Housing Justice for All has 80 affiliates - organisations almost certainly with paid staff, organising in their locality, not dissimilar to GMTU. Eighty of them, in one state. And that is a different scale to what we have here - and actually it is the kind of scale we need to be thinking about, if we are to win the things that need winning. And they have grown and they have become powerful to a degree that we haven't. Albeit we have our moments, and we do, and I always want to remember the things we have won in recent times. But I think, and certainly where private renters are concerned, the sector has grown, massively - doubled in size - but I don't think its political power has grown proportionately. And as I say people could do worse than look at some of what has gone on in New York especially, to try and think - how do we convert these 5 million households to something that looks like a political force.
Beyond scale, what are these crucial differences?
I think the paid staff is a very important one. Obviously GMTU has dealt with that, and I know London Renters is employing people. I suppose I come from an older and different tradition which is of not paying staff basically. I am still somewhat on the fence with this question. I think there are obvious strengths to having paid staff, and I think there are some drawbacks too. But lets maybe park that for another time - the fact that they have staffers who are on this all the time is an obvious asset, especially now, because of all the pressures around Coronavirus and now the looming eviction threat. You can crudely say in New York state that there are eighty organisations with eighty staff groups, all working on this stuff, five days a week. Now that is a difference of scale, and inevitably will change your ability to organise - just at a very practical level. So that is one difference.
I think the second thing is that the politics is different over there. They don't have a Labour Party, and generally speaking I think that is a shame. But at the same time, they don't have to constantly navigate themselves around Labour Party policy and positions. Now it's a bit different in New York, in the City, because the Democratic Party controls everything that moves. So the campaigners in the city need to be very alert to what the Democratic Party are saying. But most of them are not - obviously the party structures are different as well - but most of them are not members of the Democratic Party. There is a sort of distancing, I would say, which doesn't always exist over here. Because at some point, in some discussion, when we're talking about a particular campaign or particular protest or particular meeting, whatever it is, sooner or later in that discussion someone is going to raise the question of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement. To some extent - rightly so. But it has also become a blockage in my view. And I think that is a thing they don't have to navigate in quite the same way.
The third thing is that I think they are confident and assertive. You could say this is just a lazy caricature of Americans, and it is to a degree, but I think there is a spirit there. There is a kind of confidence. So to give concrete examples, I went on - so the first three months I was there, the eviction moratorium was due to end at the end of August, so all of the campaign energy was going into getting that moratorium extended. And I was going on two protests a week, literally, I am not exaggerating. Again, different scale - you lot would struggle to organise two protests a week, I would imagine! Again, there are times when that becomes the way, but they were organising two protests a week on average, in different parts of the city, different types of activities. But, as I said, with a kind of spirit and vibrancy that we don't always have here, and that includes being prepared to use direct action. And they use direct action - again, coming from a particular tradition in that country - very very deliberately. It is planned, it doesn't happen spontaneously as it might happen here. There is an agreement in advance that at this particular protest they are going to occupy that street or block that court. And x number of people have volunteered to be nicked - and that is what we are doing. Now, again, it's a longer philosophical argument, and there are some problems with that approach actually, because for instance the group I was directly involved with in the Bronx had a large number of members with shaky immigration status. And for them to get nicked has far greater implications than it would for some other activists. So it is a bit nuanced.
Another difference is that they are very good at using the media. I mean I know GMTU is good on Twitter, but they use the media in a much much better way. Well, both forms - social and traditional. But they bang out press releases like they are going out of style. All of the protests I went to out there had scores of camera people. They somehow seem to have managed to get to a point where the press work happens. We have traditionally seen the press work as a bit of an add-on, we probably need to re-think that and say, no, it is not just a nice to have. We need to see the media as something fundamental to what we are doing here. And obviously that extends into social media. That is not my strength. But if I looked at my Twitter, I would immediately see a dozen different communiqués coming from these organisations. So I think they use it better than we do.
And I think maybe the last point is I think they are maybe a little bit fleeter of foot politically than we are. Now it sounds like I am having a real downer on the British tenants movement - I don't mean it that way. But, so for instance, while I was out there, you may have noticed this because it was news everywhere. But the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo was forced to resign in a sexual scandal. Which obviously had nothing to do with housing in one sense, but actually he was making a mess on housing as well, by being a usual kind of neoliberal Tory politician. And the movement over there thought quite hard - should we exploit this moment, which is ostensibly not to do with housing, it's to do with sexual misconduct. Should we go there? This was discussed. And they decided they would and they should. So we joined a protest outside Cuomo's office in Manhattan, calling for him to resign. And people said - this is not just about his sexual misbehaviour, it's about his housing misbehaviour. And they called that moment, and got again a whole load of media on the back of it, and it helped propel the organisation forward to a point where the moratorium very soon afterwards was extended. So they won that campaign, and I think - I can't say for sure that without the Cuomo thing they would have? But they saw that political situation developing, and kind of strategised around it. And they exploited it. And again, I am not saying we can't and don't do those things, but I think we are a little bit leaden footed and plodding, and they are quite quick, when it comes to those sort of things.
So this is the 'sophisticated political analysis' that you write about.
Yeah, really. So I would go to these organisational meetings, and I felt like I was at work! There would be these huge organisation plans, and these kind of pro-con lists and flow charts and all this stuff. It was almost like management science, management speak. Organisational analysis. Again I think this is a bit countercultural to us, but I think having that in a very methodical, hyper organised way is a bit alienating. And I think some tenants especially can find it a bit off putting. But I have to say, it has borne through for them. And I have to say that political analysis is underlying it. They have a method, if you will. And we don't quite have that right now. And they follow through, that is the other thing. They follow through. This isn't just - look here is our lovely plan. They go back to it, and they follow through on it. There are action points, and things happen.
Ok. So who are the people at the heart of these movements? So in your historical piece you talk about the importance of female leadership, and I think that is definitely something that is true here too. But who are the people who carry these organisations?
OK, there are broad categories. Overwhelmingly young. By which I mean average age of the meetings I went to probably 32. By definition - by virtue of where they live, and their age, I would say without exception, but I don't absolutely know that, but almost without exception tenants themselves. Gender wise, yes most of the leading people - both staffers and tenants, as it were - are female. I think an important thing for us to get our heads around, and this is not just about GMTU, this is a nationwide thing - but far far more representation of people of colour. Now obviously to some extent this is a demographic question; you have these huge numbers of tenants in New York, and a large number of them are black. And they tend to be the worst housed. But you could scale all of that down, and it is exactly the same here. And certainly from my experience over the years, we haven't done very well on that front. And there are some quite complex reasons for that; but we haven't. And basically until we crack that we are always going to be somewhat weaker than we should be. So I think that is a really important issue, and one that over there - I don't think they would say, and in fact I think there are suggestions that they would say that you might have black people on the protest but the decisions are all being taken by white people; and I think there is something in that as well, so I think you need to think through quite carefully how we actually take decisions. Who is taking the decisions here? But there is a very general thing, it is a far more ethnically mixed movement than the one that we have here, and as I say, I think that is something we have got to start to take much more seriously than we have in the past.
The organisation, the umbrella group, Housing Justice for All has two staffers - they are both female, both in their mid thirties I would guess; one of them is non-white, one of them is white. Housing Justice for All is slightly opaque - I am not entirely sure how they operate; but what I do know is that they get a significant amount of money from various sources. In fact, again writing a paper the other day, I looked at the website of one of the places they get their money from; and that organisation alone lists on it's website 21 different funders. And that is a combination of public agencies, the city, and this is the thing - we just do not have here, is wealthy private foundations. So the Ford Foundation, for instance, i.e. Henry Ford, the massive motor car company, and this is counter-intuitive; but it funds all kinds of activism in the US, including housing activism. Not Housing Justice for All, as it happens - but there are lots and lots of similar type organisations there, who will fund political campaigning activity like housing.
Reflecting on the comparisons between the UK and New York as a whole, what would you say are the key lessons to be learnt by those of us in the UK tenant movement from our New York counterparts?
So looking over the sweep of it all, the bottom line is that all of these improvements and concessions around housing have been won through struggle, through political action. And it goes back to what you said right at the beginning - and maybe I have sugar coated this a bit, but some of the housing is appalling, and some of the treatment of tenants by landlords is brutal. On a scale which fortunately we haven't quite got here yet. I think overall tenants here in the UK just about have enough skin in the game, enough rights to be able to defend themselves in a way that in New York and other parts of America, you really are a lamb to the slaughter if you are a tenant. And I don't say that with any degree of complacency, because I know it is getting worse, and GMTU like many would be able to tell me plenty of stories about brutal landlordism, but over there it is on a different scale. And I just think, well that is a warning. We do not want to go there. But I fear we are. I fear we are heading towards a situation where tenants in New York take very little for granted. Even organising a meeting on a building level can be something that residents are nervous about or intimidated about, because they fear quite rightly that they will be victimised. And if their landlord finds out, they will be out. And that happens a lot - not just in New York but in America generally. So, I guess that is a warning really to us - and I know that there are similar stories here, but we still essentially have the right to organise; and we have to make sure we use that right - to preserve it, we need to use it.
Glyn Robbins will be speaking at our event 'Learning from the NYC Tenants Movement' on 15th June, 6:00pm at Methodist Central Buildings M1 1QJ.