How the Real Estate Lobby Exploits Small Landlords

“That was a pretty bad idea to discriminate against voucher holders [during the pandemic] if there was going to be a period of some nine months when a lot of tenants were going to have difficulty paying their rent,” Gilbert said.

Clement added that despite lobbying groups’ emphasis on small landlords, New York’s sweeping 2019 housing reforms disproportionately affect large real estate owners.

“The distribution is even more significantly skewed towards large portfolios when you look at rent-regulated buildings. So in New York City, that primarily means rent stabilization,” Clement said. “And those are typically larger buildings, and those are principally owned by larger real estate companies and part of larger portfolios.”

It’s difficult to convince these landlords that commodified housing hurts them too, as long as they’re still reaping some benefits. My mom might seem like an outlier only because her experience with poverty mirrors that of her tenants, but that’s not the case for my other family members who are living comfortably with their assets. In fact, many of my relatives think my mom is ridiculous for her progressive views.

While not all landlords come from the same economic backgrounds, groups like the Met Council on Housing say that emphasizing the distinctions between owners and renters can be helpful in fighting for housing justice.

“Like all people in the ownership class, landlords have strong class solidarity, and aligning with their tenants would make them class traitors,” Farkas said over email. “It’s a complete waste of time and energy to try to organize them. We organize tenants because they already have class solidarity and can wield a huge amount of power by acting collectively.”

We’re not going to wake up to a classless utopia any time soon, so we might as well look at how the current system works internally to find avenues towards a better future. That includes ensuring the right to counsel for tenants in eviction courts, as Gilbert advises. Or, preventing the foreboding monopolization in real estate that Clement worries will be accelerated by the pandemic. It also means investing in relationships the way my mom has — without including a landlord.

The Pilsen Housing Cooperative (PIHCO) set out to do just that when it transitioned to a resident-controlled board in February 2020 after years of mobilizing to combat the rapid gentrification and displacement in the Chicago neighborhood. Nonprofit limited-equity co-ops like PIHCO generally work like this: Residents all have a share in a building, making it collectively owned, and they reach decisions together. A share can be sold or transferred if a resident moves out, but there are restrictions put in place to keep the housing affordable. Co-ops have a long history in housing justice, and more people are continuing their legacy, like Maria-Isabel Cardona. The 19-year-old college student’s family resides in a PIHCO co-op, and now she’s helping to secure the co-op’s second property.

“I think it’s important for us to have a role in making sure that our parents’ legacies with this co-op stay forever, because I know in the future, Pilsen will change,” Cardona said, adding that “me and the other kids in this co-op [can] give the neighborhood a reminder of what it once was and what it could still be.”

For Cardona, the pandemic’s effect on tenants “further shows that co-ops are necessary for the world we’re living in now, and the future, because — this might sound a little controversial, but I don’t think there’s a need for landlords. Co-op buildings can operate by themselves. All the people who live in the building, manage the building.”

These initiatives show that we’re a lot closer to housing for all than it seems. The framework is there, and we already have the skills we need to take care of each other. The stories of struggling landlords only shed more light on how detrimental commodified housing is for all of us. That may not matter to the classes who control most of those assets, but there’s power in realizing everyone has a right to a home.

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: What Is Gentrification? How It Works, Who It Affects, and What to Do About It