The Metropolitan Council on Housing has been at the forefront of the most important struggles for housing justice in New York City for over half a century.
The origins of the Metropolitan Council on Housing
During the early spring of 1959, housing activists from across New York City began to gather at the 23rd Street YMCA to share stories and tactics from tenant and community struggles against urban renewal projects in the city.
Jane Benedict, a former labor organizer, founded the Yorkville Save Our Homes coalition to oppose the construction of luxury condos in her neighborhood. Jane hired a sound truck to broadcast information about upcoming meetings to the neighborhood. Further downtown, in Chelsea, Jane Wood led her Latino neighborhood in opposing the Penn Station South redevelopment project which would have replaced six blocks of low rent tenements with high-rise housing. In Cooper Square, future SNCC activist Staughton Lynd led the fight against urban renewal, and in the Lower East Side Francis Goldin and Esther Rand organized tenants out of their local American Labor Party office.
In May 1959 these organizers were joined by several others and formalized their meetings as the Metropolitan Council on Housing (popularly known as Met Council), a citywide organization that rapidly emerged as a major force in the New York City tenant movement.
1960s: Contesting Urban Renewal
Met Council on Housing brought together liberals and radicals working on housing issues throughout the city, and its political focus shifted over the course of the late twentieth century as new issues rose to prominence. During the 1960s, Met Council on Housing focused on neighborhood opposition to redevelopment projects, calling for an end to the demolition of habitable buildings, while also demanding the construction of public housing on vacant land. Met Council on Housing also organized insolidarity with the civil rights movement, sending a delegation to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and supporting the boycott of Trailways buses in response to their discriminatory employment policies. By the late 1960s, Met Council on Housing activists began to broaden their base, creating alliances with radicals working on a diverse array of social justice issues, including the Black Panthers and Harlem rent strike organizer Jesse Gray.
The 1970s, a decade overshadowed by financial crisis in New York City, saw the advent of a citywide squatters’ movement in response to the growing problem of housing abandonment. In the summer of 1970, low-income families began to move into vacant buildings owned by Columbia University in Morningside Heights, and Operation Move-In was soon underway across the city. Primarily led by African-American and Latino communities, Met Council on Housing organized in solidarity and provided logistical support. Met Council on Housing concluded the year with the “People’s Court Housing Crimes Trial”: an eight hour mock trial in which tenants, squatters and sympathetic city administrators testified about the struggles faced by the city’s low-income residents.
The decade also began with significant legislative setbacks for the city’s tenants. In 1971, the Urstadt Law removed rent regulation from municipal jurisdiction, dramatically reducing the power of New York City to address its housing issues. The same year, vacancy decontrol withdrew apartments from rent control as they were vacated. Met Council on Housing responded to these defeats with an increased focus on legislative reform. In 1974, after a hard fought campaign, the Emergency Tenant Protection Act extended rent stabilization to many of the apartments affected by vacancy decontrol.
Met Council on Housing continued its legislative focus into the 1980s. The Flynn-Dearie Bill for statewide rent control, a wide-reaching tenant protection act, was introduced in Albany in 1979. Flynn-Dearie required landlords to open their books to state auditing before rent increases were approved, and came to characterize Met Council on Housing's uncompromising position on tenant protection. Homelessness also became a critical issue in New York City during this period. Met Council on Housing responded to this housing crisis with rallies, press conferences and outreach efforts. The parallel issue of warehousing, in which apartments are left intentionally vacant, also emerged as a significant focus for Met Council on Housing during this period.
1990s and Beyond: Fighting the Rent Wars
The 1990s brought another attack on rent regulations by the real estate and landlord lobby, in 1993 and 1997. Tenants responded to the threat of rent deregulation in great numbers, and a rejuvenated and vibrant tenant movement once again emerged in New York City. Known as the "Rent Wars," Met Council on Housing organized large lobbying trips to Albany as well as holding pickets and vigils in New York City.
Despite internal divisions between the more radical and liberal members of Met Council on Housing during the early 1970s, the organization reached its peak membership in 1976. Branch offices were located in Midtown, Harlem, Queens, Bay Ridge, and other neighborhoods throughout the city. Neighborhood branch offices were the locus of tenant mutual aid activities; including workshops, rent clinics, and community events such as Halloween costume parties at the Lower East Side branch.
Throughout the decades, Met Council on Housing has relied on a diverse array of tactics to preserve and expand the city’s supply of decent and affordable housing. In addition to the mutual aid support provided by branch offices, Met Council on Housing utilized rent strikes, pickets, vigils and occupations to fight for the needs of tenants. Beginning in the late 1970s, Met Council on Housing organized the annual Tenant Lobby Day in Albany, allowing New York City residents to meet with legislators and voice demands for rent reform. These different tactics have been used to address grievances with landlords, to reclaim abandoned housing stock for the public and to bring tenant voices directly to elected officials.
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