To give a strong public voice to tenants
To make tenants a viable electoral force
Tenants Political Action Committee, Inc., was founded in the aftermath of the Rent Wars of 1997.
Tenant leaders from New York City and its suburban counties ― the only parts of New York State with rent control and rent stabilization laws ― founded Tenants PAC to give renters more clout with elected officials at the only place most politicians care about: the ballot box.
Tenants PAC is governed by a board of directors of tenant activists from New York City, Nassau County and Westchester County. Tenants PAC is not affiliated with any other organization.
Like many tenant activists, the Tenants PAC founders were frustrated at our inability to win enactment of pro-tenant legislation in Albany. The threat that the rent laws would not be renewed by the New York State Legislature in June 1997 was real.
Tenants and our supporters mounted an enormous organizing and lobbying campaign and the rent laws were in fact renewed. But tenant protections were seriously weakened as the price of that renewal, hastening the decontrol of rent-regulated apartments and giving landlords an incentive to pressure and harass tenants in order to obtain vacancies.
See How the Landlords Weakened Our Rent Laws (pdf) for the full story.
The lesson was clear. The fact that tenants had done a good job of lobbying state legislators did not matter. Lobbying is important, certainly. But lobbying alone will not stop the continuing erosion of our rent-protected housing. Tenants must get involved in election work.
Since 1997, some 300,000 affordable apartments (rent controlled, rent stabilized, Mitchell-Lama, and Section 8) in the downstate region have been converted to unaffordable, market rent status due to pro-landlord provisions in our rent laws - and the tenants moving into these apartments lack basic rent and eviction protections.
The pace of decontrol has accelerated. And the New York State Legislature and Governor George Pataki weakened the rent laws again in 2003, the last time they came up for renewal.
Landlords understand the importance of elections. Every election cycle, New York City landlords and landlord organizations contribute staggering amounts of money to political candidates -- including upstate legislators who do not have a single rent-regulated apartment in their districts -- in effect, bribing these elected officials to weaken and phase out tenant protection laws.
The only way that tenants can counter the enormous power of real estate money is to get involved in election activity. Politicians must learn to respect the power of tenants.
Tenants PAC raises funds from tenants and recruits tenants as volunteers in targeted elections. We are an all-volunteer organization, so all contributions are used only for our modest costs of operation and to support our targeted candidates. Tenants PAC targets races where the tenant vote can make a difference, and works to activate that vote in support of pro-tenant candidates.
Tenants PAC is the only organization in New York State devoted to advancing the tenant cause through election activity. While tenants will never be able to match the landlords' money, our financial contributions to pro-tenant candidates can make a big difference. And tenants can play a big role in electing pro-tenant candidates by volunteering to knock on doors and to staff phone banks.
Tenants PAC focuses on the New York State Senate, where Republicans hold a slim and diminishing majority. The Republican leadership of the Senate does the bidding of New York City landlords, who buy their support with huge campaign donations. According to a "Connect the Dots" study by Common Cause, in the three years leading up to the last sunset (expiration) of the rent laws in 2003, New York City landlords and landlord organizations gave some $3 million in campaign contributions to state elected officials and to the Republican and Conservative parties. Only 2 percent of this $3 million went to Democratic candidates.
Since 1997 Tenants PAC has helped elect eight pro-tenant State Senators. Of course, some of our endorsed candidates have lost. But tenants are now a stronger force in elections.
2004 was a watershed year for tenant electoral power: that year the Democrats took three State Senate seats that had been held by Republicans. Tenants PAC helped win two of these races, and helped hold onto a Democratic seat where the incumbent had retired.
And the election in November 2006-2009 of Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in which Tenants PAC played a central part, continued the steady march to a Democratic majority, as did the victory of Craig Johnson in the February 2007 special election, and then the February special election victory of Darrel Aubertine in February 2008. Tenants PAC played a vital role in all these elections. See Campaigns for an account of these three races.
Of course, merely electing a Democratic majority in the State Senate does not solve the problems of a dysfunctional legislature under the iron control of the Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, regardless of their party affiliation.
Tenants must also work to reform Albany: above all, to reform our loose campaign finance laws, to eliminate the power of landlord money ― but also to reform the legislative process itself so that it is more open and transparent, and to win non-partisan redistricting, so that the legislative leaders do not control how the lines are drawn for the 62 State Senate and 150 State Assembly districts (the next redistricting will take place in 2011-2012, following completion of the 2010 decennial census).
Non-partisan redistricting and campaign finance reform will mean that elections are actually competitive. Our current porous campaign finance laws allow those with economic clout ― landlords among them ― to buy elections, and the partisan redistricting controlled by the legislative leaders is used to protect incumbents. The result is legislative gridlock.
Through our election work Tenants PAC reminds the Senate Democrats that we are helping them win the majority, and that we expect them to deliver on their promise of stronger rent laws and tenant protections ― as well as campaign finance reform, non-partisan redistricting, and reform of the legislative process so that individual members have some power, as in Congress, instead of concentrating all the power in the leadership.
Tenants have enormous power at the ballot box - if we choose to use it.