We would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Thomas J. Waters, housing researcher and great friend to the New York City housing movement, who died of complications from COVID-19 on April 4.
April 14, 2020. The number of people who have died from COVID-19 in our city, New York City, jumped past 10,000. Each day brings news of loss, borne by the Internet or by the incessant waves of ambulance sirens heard across the city. New Yorkers like to think of themselves as being at the center of the world, an idea greatly facilitated by the city’s being a real and symbolic center of global capitalism. At the same time, it becomes clearer by the day that not only is COVID-19 leading to significant failures in capitalism, but also that capitalism is failing a world beset by the novel coronavirus.
On one hand, the social distancing measures mean that most business—and certainly the tourism that is one of New York City’s economic backbones—has ground to a halt, throwing millions out of work, decimating their incomes and government tax-receipts, alike. On the other hand, the predatory quality of American capitalism, from the systematic exclusions from social benefits for many low-wage workers, to chronic wage-theft, unlivable wages, lack of health care, disproportionately polluted neighborhoods, and finance-fueled rentierism and asset-stripping of communities of color have both virtually guaranteed that the COVID-19 crisis would hit working-class communities and communities of color in vast disproportion, and that these very communities would be largely neglected in everything from federal relief payments and distribution of personal protective equipment to any kind of planning for the aftermath.
In New York City and New York State, both the Mayor, Bill de Blasio, and Governor, Andrew Cuomo helped set the stage for this crisis through status quo neoliberal policy and practice, were slow to respond to the crisis, and since beginning to respond, seem incapable of putting aside their rivalry to provide consistent leadership, each giving conflicting accounts of measures to be taken to stop the spread of the virus. The result has been a “sudden shock to an overburdened system,” a system that already had nearly 80,000 homeless people in shelters on a given night, including one in ten students in public schools. Worse still, they have moved almost not at all to deconcentrate homeless people and people in jails from congregate living situations, in spite of the 100,000 empty hotel rooms in the tourist-bereft city and the resources to do it. As a result, to take one example, Rikers Island jail has more than seven times the transmission rate than the city overall, in spite of the fact that “essential workers”—such as healthcare workers, food-service workers, store-stockers, transit workers, delivery people, and yes, corrections officers and homeless shelter staff—are subject to significant transmission risks on the city’s still-crowded subways.
To make matters worse, Governor Cuomo, who has gained national prominence through daily press conferences that form a rational counterpoint to President Trump’s increasingly unhinged press briefings, pushed through a state budget in early April that is a model of neoliberal austerity. The budget cuts funds to hospitals, including the very public hospitals in the hardest-hit communities in the city, and where shortages of personal protective equipment have put staff at extreme risk. It cuts education—at all levels, including public universities—on which working-class New Yorkers depend. It adds nothing to the public housing budget, even as public housing in New York houses people at highest risk, and where long-standing cuts have led to situations in which tenants have no water to wash their hands and must crowd into the few working elevators. In the budget, as well, were provisions that have no clear economic justification—linked to falling tax-receipts—like rolling back recent reforms to the bail system that will now send more people into jails before trial, and will make it more difficult for candidates from third parties to appear on the ballot.
The passage of an austerity budget, stuffed with the governor’s policy priorities and a notable refusal to raise taxes on the super-wealthy in the most unequal state in the United States, was only possible because of COVID-19. There is little doubt that in “normal” times, New York City’s movements—around housing and homelessness, police reform, immigrant rights, low-wage workers’ rights, and higher education at a minimum—would have mobilized days of occupations at the state capitol to push otherwise-compliant state legislators to join their fewer less-compliant colleagues in opposing the budget.
It becomes clearer by the day that not only is COVID-19 leading to significant failures in capitalism, but also that capitalism is failing a world beset by the novel coronavirus.
So, what have movements of the working class in New York City done during this pandemic?
Working class movements
First, let us get a sense of the field. Generally speaking, New York City’s social movements are rooted, as many movements in the United States are, in issue-specific and neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations, rather than in groups affiliated, for example, to political parties or labor unions. This has certainly been the case since the 1970s due to reductions in federal support and increasing reliance on voluntary organizations for social reproduction, and corresponding changes in federal tax law that allowed tax-exempt donor support community-based organizations and advocacy groups. Many nonprofits that still do community organizing and base-building among New York’s working-class communities began as projects or affiliates of radical groupings of different sorts in the more general “movement” of the late 1960s and 1970s but converted into nonprofit organizations in order to more stably and formally raise resources.
Today, and for the last ten years or so, issue-specific movement groups around housing, homelessness, environmental justice, health care, low-wage workers’ rights, immigrant rights, public education, financial justice, and police reform—among others— and neighborhood-based groups have worked more closely together. Adam Reich has shown that Occupy Wall Street helped to make the networks of movement groups in New York City denser as they scrambled to contribute to, and even helped to steer a suddenly visible and long-lasting mass protest. We analyzed the membership and supporters of seven coalitions in New York City around housing (3), criminal justice (1), immigration (1), public higher education (1) and public banks (1). These coalitions were chosen both for the breadth of issues they cover, and for the fact that the issues they cover have cohesive coalitions working on them. We find that half of the 85 groups overlap with at least one other group in at least two coalitions, and half overlap with more than that. By and large, the groups that overlap the most are base-building groups that respond to their members’ multifaceted needs: working-class New Yorkers are not just fighting their landlords to stave off eviction, or fighting the City to keep their neighborhoods affordable; they are also fighting banks for fair credit, the police for harassing their young people, employers for stealing their wages and threatening undocumented workers with immigration enforcement, industries from polluting their neighborhoods, and the state government for cutting public education funds. Nevertheless, the network clusters around housing and immigrant rights, with a police reform coalition joining both clusters more strongly.
That these clusters of organizations have gotten more dense means a few things. First, prior to COVID-19, they were gaining strength. On the heels of Occupy and before Black Lives Matter, a just policing coalition called Communities United for Police Reform mobilized groups from across the city--and the general public--to win several pivotal legal cases and significant legislative reforms. Since then, many of the same groups have worked together on many other issues. Moreover, the presence and combination of progressive political parties in the networks—the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America—meant that these networks mobilized around several state senate candidates and, for the first time in several generations, put the state senate under Democratic Party control. Also, many groups have broadened their base beyond New York City, opening chapters in low-income communities across the state and working with ally groups in other cities. In the past year, criminal justice activist groups have pushed forward bail reform (the laws that Governor Cuomo partially rolled back in the budget); immigrant rights groups—mainly united in the New York Immigration Coalition—successfully pushed the state legislature to pass a New York State Dream Act, which offers state-funded financial aid and scholarships to attend university to undocumented youth who arrived in the United States before the age of 18, and a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses. One of the housing coalitions, the Right to Counsel Coalition, won indigent tenants a right to a lawyer in housing court in 2018; and the Housing Justice for All campaign, based in a coalition uniting New York City tenant groups with upstate New York groups, won an epochal victory by getting the state legislature to overturn two decades’ worth of loopholes for landlords that had been added to New York State’s rent regulation statutes. Fresh off these victories, movement networks were poised to win more changes in housing policy, and to extend these victories to other, overlapping issues. COVID-19 prevented the groups from pushing their advantage in state government; Governor Cuomo—a tough negotiator—was free to push for his policies without pressure from the other side. And the communities in which the organizations that compose these networks have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. As the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development has shown, the incidence of COVID-19 closely tracks the geography of neighborhoods with majorities of people of color; with renters paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing; and with being employed in service work.
Mutual aid involves getting people food and medicine that they need; delivering personal protective equipment to hospitals and to other essential workers, and raising funds for workers who have been thrown out of work, many of whom are ineligible for unemployment benefits or federal relief checks because of their immigration status or job category
In response, the networks have mobilized in ways that combine what geographer, Cindi Katz, has called the “three R’s”—resilience, reworking, and resistance. Resilience speaks to the basics of social reproduction, the ability of people to survive and live up to socially recognized standards, despite structural disadvantages and in the face of threats like COVID-19. Reworking refers to the efforts people make to rearrange and refashion aspects of local conditions and institutions in ways that suit their projects either of resilience or of deeper social transformation. And resistance refers to more overt, collective demands for change and direct actions that push these demands forward.
Many community-based organizations have addressed the resilience of New York’s working-class communities by setting up mutual aid projects alongside those of industry-based groups (e.g., restaurant workers, street vendors, domestic workers), and political groups (e.g., Democratic Socialists of America, various anarchist groupings). Mutual aid involves getting people food and medicine that they need; delivering personal protective equipment to hospitals and to other essential workers, and raising funds for workers who have been thrown out of work, many of whom are ineligible for unemployment benefits or federal relief checks because of their immigration status or job category (e.g., sex work). An effort to coordinate among mutual aid projects occurred quickly, spurred by veterans of Occupy Sandy—the mutual aid efforts that responded to the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Sandy a year after Occupy Wall Street—who were involved in groups in the city’s movement networks. Mutual Aid NY brings together more than 85 such projects; other projects exist beyond its orbit.
These efforts are quite different from charity work: mutual aid both comes from the resources mustered by groups rooted in the communities they are otherwise organizing politically, and, at least in these times, feeds into this work. To be sure, this involves community-based nonprofits reworking their own institutions in order both to meet the immediate needs of their members and even just to show support to their members. But it also involves reworking relations more broadly, at least in some cases. For example, a subset of the housing networks has been demanding that the City and State move homeless and incarcerated people out of congregate living situations and into empty hotel rooms. They have not pushed more generally and radically for housing homeless people—though it’s clear that the city’s homeless crisis illustrated its abject failures in creating truly affordable housing before the COVID-19 crisis—but for a stop-gap measure. Seeing continued inaction and misinformation coming out of the City government, they resorted to a petition and GoFundMe campaign that raised enough money in two days to put up 20 people in hotels—a mainly symbolic accomplishment (except, importantly, for those people now out of danger).
But these same networks have pushed for more radical reworking, and resistance as well. The overlapping housing groups pushed early for a moratorium on evictions. They won it. It was clear, of course, that with record numbers of people with no savings to speak of suddenly thrown out of work, April rent would be difficult if not impossible to meet. Mass evictions the week projected to be the worst of the pandemic in New York were simply untenable. Nevertheless, the ban is comprehensive and lasts months. The same groups have mobilized across their online networks to demand that rents are also canceled so that tenants paying 30 or 50 percent of their incomes on rent when they had work, will not face the end of the eviction moratorium still out of work and owing months of back rent. So far, they have not succeeded, but they have disseminated a call for tenants to go on rent strike and have produced a “tool-kit” to that end; and they're building a story map to show how COVID-19 is impacting renters, small homeowners, and homeless people’s housing situations from across the state, as a base-building and advocacy tool.
Other groups have followed suit. One group, the New Economy Project, an advocacy and legal assistance organization for community-based groups and the founder of the Public Bank coalition, has called for blanket debt forgiveness during the crisis and is organizing a coalition to push for it on a state level as banks and other creditors have moved to seize the federal relief checks of people in debt arrears.
Increasingly, the organizations involved in New York’s movement networks are holding joint Zoom forums, often with sympathetic politicians, and circulating online petitions for their demands. They are also figuring out new ways of doing outreach to community members who live in their neighborhoods but who may not be reliably connected to the Internet. In some cases, outreach is done jointly with mutual aid. The complex interweaving of resilience, reworking and resistance across an increasingly integrated network of groups means that these networks will emerge from the crisis with new campaigns and deeper relationships. They will have new capacities to help communities be resilient and perhaps also less dependent on the structures that oppress them in normal times and consign them to vastly unequal burdens in times of crisis. Accordingly, when distancing restrictions are lifted, having gone into the COVID-19 crisis relatively stronger than they had been in a long time, New York’s movements may be positioned to support more radical action and demands in the face of the inevitable neoliberal austerity and disaster capitalism that is still the default of an ever-more-visibly decadent system.