Michael McKee and the long, good fight for housing justice in New York

Originally published in the journal of the TenantsPAC fundraiser and eightieth birthday tribute to Michael McKee, December 3, 2019, The Cutting Room, Manhattan. You can support TenantsPAC here

Women's March 2017Michael and his husband Eric Stenshoel at the New York City Women’s March, January 2017.

By Tim Ledwith

The fight started over a broken window, as fights sometimes do. The year was 1969. The window was in Michael McKee’s apartment on West 17th Street. And the fight? That was with one landlord in particular, and with predatory landlordism in general, and it hasn’t ended yet.

By no means, of course, is it Michael’s fight alone. As he asserts at every opportunity, his efforts over the past half century have been part of a much bigger struggle for the right to decent, affordable housing. In New York City, that struggle dates back at least as far as the first large rent strikes on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Michael’s involvement commenced as the tenant movement picked up steam in the 1960s’ cauldron of activism for civil rights and gay liberation, and against the war in Vietnam. Ever since, he has played a singular role in the good fight against well-resourced forces of greed and corruption.

More on that to come, but first, back to the broken window.

It was only a nuisance initially, just a missing pane in Michael’s first New York apartment. But as his repeated calls for repairs went unanswered, he became frustrated by the malign neglect of his building’s absentee landlord. The situation escalated when the boiler blew one February day and remained blown for seven frigid weeks.

Michael sought help from tenant counselors at the Metropolitan Council on Housing, who advised that the West 17th Street tenants try to get the owner’s attention with a rent strike. A group of building residents coalesced around this idea, and the strike began in the summer of 1970. The landlord subsequently – and unsuccessfully – sued Michael and two other tenants for non-payment of rent. Then he disappeared entirely, traveling to Europe and staying away for nearly a year. After a few months, out of sheer necessity, the tenants started using their pooled rent money to pay for building maintenance and urgent repairs.

When the landlord finally returned from his continental sojourn, the tenants confronted him with a lawsuit of their own. The settlement they ultimately negotiated was a collective bargaining agreement giving the residents effective control of the building. It was likely the first – and possibly the only – collective bargaining agreement ever signed by a landlord and tenants in New York State.

The West 17th Street tenants later bought the building in a foreclosure auction when the owner defaulted on three mortgages that, they had discovered, consumed more than half of the rent roll (hence the repair and service problems). The apartments were eventually converted to affordable co-ops with assistance from the City of New York. But Michael had left by then. In 1977, he moved into an apartment on West 21st Street with Louis Fulgoni, whom he had met three years earlier and who would remain his partner until Louis’s death in 1989.

“Louis and I couldn’t afford to pay two rents any longer, and he had the bigger apartment,” Michael recalls.

Although Michael had moved on from the scene of his first skirmish in the landlord-tenant wars, he had not left the movement. Far from it. In fact, he had found his life’s calling as a full-time tenant organizer, agitator and advocate.

The awakening of an Army brat
When he joined the fight for tenants’ rights, Michael was still relatively new to the city that would become his adopted hometown. Born in Texas on December 3, 1939 and raised in a military family, he had already lived in five states, as well as Japan, by the time he finished high school. In 1963, one year after graduating from Baylor University with a degree in French and minors in history and theatre, he moved to France.

Michael arrived in the City of Light on November 21, the day before the assassination of JFK. The wild ride of the 1960s was under way. He had hoped to find work in film production in Paris, but without a work permit, gigs were scarce. In his copious downtime, he watched classic films at the Cinémathèque Française. “That was where I got my education in cinema,” he says.

In 1965, he decided his prospects would be brighter in New York, and he was right. Almost immediately after arriving here from Paris, Michael landed a job as an apprentice editor at a film production company. However, it took him nine months – even then – to score an affordable apartment in the city’s tight rental housing market.

“I always went to Sheridan Square on Tuesday nights to get an advance copy of the Village Voice,” Michael remembers, adding that he would check the classified ads and hunt for apartments the next day. “But at eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, I would be the thirtieth person showing up to look at a place.”

Michael’s introduction to the lot of tenancy in New York opened his eyes to the inequities of the market. Previously, he had not been very politically engaged. Grappling with his sexuality as he grew up may well have fed his skepticism about mainstream American politics and values. And as a student at schools in the South that were just beginning to integrate in the 1950s, he says he felt a visceral disgust at the blunt racism of some of his white classmates. Still, there was no outlet for political engagement in his world.

By the late 1960s, Michael was joining the mass anti-war protests that had become ubiquitous. But some of his early experiences with activism were less than stellar.

He remembers attending meetings in which firebrands bent on ending the Vietnam War and advancing gay and lesbian rights engaged in angry debates that “amounted to proving who was more politically correct than thou.” People seemed to lose sight of the bigger picture, sabotaging alliances that could have proven powerful. It was, he now believes, an early lesson in the necessity of building coalitions.

But Michael was becoming increasingly committed to helping tenants resist the caprices of their landlords. His education in direct action began in earnest in 1970, when he became a volunteer organizer at Met Council and found himself in the orbit of Jane Benedict, its co-founder and charismatic driving force. Although she and Michael would part ways before long, Benedict was one of his first mentors in the movement. She was also a mentor to many of Michael’s fellow “young people” – as Met Council’s old guard referred, sometimes condescendingly, to a cohort of New Left upstarts who had become active in the organization.

Soon, however, condescension morphed into open confrontation. By 1972, the young people and the old guard were caught in a vortex of political infighting.

The citywide rent strike that wasn’t
Three years earlier, in 1969, New York City had responded to skyrocketing prices in rental housing by enacting the Rent Stabilization Law, which established a flawed but extensive system of regulation and protection for tenants living in post-war apartment buildings. Tenants in multiple dwellings built before 1947 were already covered by the stronger rent control system.

Despite its limitations, the Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 extended the universe of regulated housing in the city. It was too much for the real estate lobby to bear. In 1971, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller abetted the landlords with a devastating proposal to deregulate both rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments when they became vacant.

Met Council’s response to this threat of “vacancy decontrol” was to call for a citywide rent strike. The old guard deemed lobbying to be corrupt, and Met Council refused to send a single busload of protesters to the capital – effectively allowing the New York State Legislature to enact the Republican governor’s anti-tenant package. The legislation represented not only a kick in the gut to cash-strapped tenants but also a tempting incentive for landlords to harass and illegally evict them.

In the wake of this defeat, the attempt to organize a citywide rent strike continued. At first, the young organizers at Met Council were enthusiastic. “We thought, what a cool idea,” Michael says. After many months of effort, however, they realized that tenants would not join a rent strike for political reasons. The only buildings on rent strike, never more than a dozen at a time, were those with serious repair and service issues. The young people proposed, instead, working with other groups to build leverage in Albany through a statewide tenants’ coalition.

To Michael and his fellow upstarts, a surge in tenant harassment and evictions after enactment of vacancy decontrol was proof positive of the need to build a broad-based, statewide movement. Only such a movement, they argued, could seize the attention and win the support of key legislators.

The old guard agreed – initially. In the summer of 1972, Michael and two other organizers had Met Council’s blessing to attend a weekend meeting with some of their counterparts from upstate localities. Gathered at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, about 20 activists stayed in empty dorm rooms for five dollars a night and met in the campus cafeteria. They agreed, in principle, to form a federation of local tenant groups with a primary focus on lobbying the state legislature.

In the meantime, though, the old guard at Met Council was having second thoughts. The Communist Party USA had recently changed its policy on working in coalitions, and most of the old guard were current or former Party members. Michael and his colleagues were told that they could lobby in Albany in Met Council’s name but could not work in coalition with other groups. The young people pushed back, but after an extended, often bitter debate, the old guard prevailed. Nine board members, including Michael, found themselves out of Met Council – and temporarily, at least, out in the cold.

Over the years, the rift has healed. Today, in fact, Michael sits once more on Met Council’s board of directors, and the CPUSA invited him to speak at its 100th anniversary celebration in September of this year. He was honored to attend. “Everything seems to have come full circle,” he says. But at a politically charged and consequential moment forty-seven years ago, the schism that divided the tenant movement in New York City was a raw wound.

A statewide movement is born
The exiles from Met Council were stung but undeterred. They regrouped and immediately resumed the effort to form a statewide coalition. The first order of business was outreach to groups across the state. That outreach proceeded apace, and in December 1974, the New York State Tenants Coalition was formally chartered at a meeting of forty delegates from local organizations in Albany, Schenectady, Utica and New York City, as well as Nassau and Westchester Counties.

It didn’t happen a moment too soon. In fact, the statewide movement won its first victories even before the Coalition had time to adopt its founding bylaws.

During the 1974 session of the state legislature, the movement backed four bills that significantly expanded tenant protections. All four passed the Assembly and Senate – both Republican-controlled at the time – and were signed into law. The new laws gave public housing tenants outside New York City greater representation in local decision-making and blocked developers from demolishing buildings simply to deplete the supply of rent controlled apartments. The laws also curbed co-op and condo conversions, and protected low-income elderly tenants and homeowners from burdensome rents and property taxes.

The Coalition was sharpening its game. Along with Jim Garst of the Mitchell-Lama Coalition and other lobbyists and advocates, Michael was spending more of his time in Albany. On overnight visits, he stayed with Roger and Maria Markovics, the founders of United Tenants of Albany, at their home in the shadow of the Empire State Plaza. The Coalition had begun to establish working relationships with senior legislators and their staffs, and the results were impressive.

In hindsight, perhaps the most far-reaching housing law enacted in New York State in 1974 was initially derided by the Coalition as a watered-down compromise. The law, a response to two years of sustained tenant organizing, was dubbed the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. Despite its weak features, it was a step forward. Among other changes, it repealed vacancy decontrol and extended rent stabilization to Nassau, Rockland and Westchester Counties. The ETPA would form the foundation of rent stabilization in New York for decades to come.

In 1975, tenants scored an even greater victory with the Warranty of Habitability. “Enactment of the Warranty was absolutely historic,” Michael says. The law conditions landlords’ right to collect rent on maintaining their buildings in a habitable condition, free of hazards to life, health or safety. With a lift from this success and the gains of 1974, the fledgling Coalition was taking flight.

“Sunset” battles and the disaster of decontrol
One of the weaknesses of the ETPA – nominally adopted as an emergency response to rock-bottom vacancy rates in rental housing – was that its provisions would “sunset” perennially and had to be renewed by the state legislature. The story of the statewide tenant movement since 1974 is largely the story of every battle between landlords and tenants over renewing the rent laws.

It has been a winding and often tortuous road. For most of the past forty-five years, the two houses of the state legislature have been divided, with Democrats controlling the Assembly and Republicans in charge of the Senate. Thus, every effort to renew the ETPA has required bipartisan wrangling.

In 1976, tenants successfully pressed the legislature to renew the rent laws despite Senate Republican opposition. They lobbied by mail, by phone, in legislators’ home districts and on strategically timed bus trips to Albany. The statewide organization changed its name to the New York State Tenant and Neighborhood Coalition – later abridged to Tenants & Neighbors – but its central purpose remained the same: to secure lasting relief for tenants besieged by rising rents on one hand and substandard, even dangerous housing conditions on the other.

When the ETPA came up for renewal yet again in 1977, the Coalition and its allies fought off severely weakening amendments and won an unprecedented four-year extension of the rent laws. “For once,” Michael says, “tenants had a sliver of breathing room.”

They took advantage of that space to hone their organizing skills. In 1977, Michael and Roger Hayes became co-directors of the Peoples Housing Network, which operated a school for organizers across New York State. That same year, the Coalition successfully lobbied for passage of the Neighborhood Preservation Companies Act, under which the state provides funding to hundreds of community-based housing organizations.

From 1978 to 1980, Michael also served as a member of the Temporary State Commission on Rental Housing. The Speaker of the Assembly appointed him as a tenant representative on the advisory panel, to recommend reforms for a more permanent, equitable system of rent regulation.

This was a noble goal, but it was not yet to be. Between 1981 and 1991, tenants had to mobilize for six more “sunset” battles, fending off assaults from the real estate industry and its minions in Albany. Each time, they managed to get the rent laws renewed without any major weakening provisions.

In 1993, however, the legislative dam burst. Tenants succeeded in winning renewal of the ETPA, but the renewal bill included provisions deregulating apartments that cost $2,000 a month or more – hardly a luxury rent in a supercharged market. “It was a disaster,” Michael says. Even worse amendments were enacted in 1997.

Despite the Coalition’s best efforts to block decontrol, these provisions remained intact for more than two decades. Over time, hundreds of thousands of rent stabilized apartments in New York City and its suburban counties were converted to market-rate units. And as the hemorrhaging continued, affordable housing drifted even further out of reach for ordinary New Yorkers.

Political action hits the mark
The debacle of 1997 occurred in the political context of a Republican-controlled state Senate and a Republican governor determined to wipe out rent regulation completely. Looking back, Michael says the lesson for tenants was clear: As skilled as the Coalition had become at lobbying state legislators, lobbying was not enough. To hold back landlord power and realize their own aspirations, tenants had to get much more actively engaged in the electoral process.

With Michael as one of its guiding hands, TenantsPAC was born out of that necessity. The mission of the political action committee would be to give tenants a strong public voice and make them a viable electoral force. It was time to target New York’s politicians in their most vulnerable nether region: the ballot box.

Starting with a special election in 1997, TenantsPAC volunteers steadily extended their capacity to aid progressive candidates and obstruct landlord allies. Through door knocking, phone banks, get-out-the-vote drives and campaign contributions in critical races, the committee began making headway. In 2006 and 2010, respectively, TenantsPAC made lasting gains with the election of pro-tenant stalwarts Andrea Stewart-Cousins in Westchester and Gustavo Rivera in the Bronx. Momentum was building.

But even when Democrats finally won a majority in the state Senate in 2008 – thus ostensibly controlling both houses of the legislature in Albany – the tenant agenda was thwarted. The Democrats held thirty-two Senate seats and the GOP held thirty, but rogue Democrats (“landlord stooges,” as Michael calls them) opposed bills favored by tenants. Even minor pro-tenant amendments were rejected. When the Republicans reclaimed a slim majority in 2010, another group of Democrats went rogue. Calling themselves the Independent Democratic Conference, they allied with the GOP and blocked all pro-tenant legislation for the next eight years.

This obstacle was finally cleared away at the polls. In 2018, Tenants PAC played a central role in defeating six of the eight members of the IDC and helping the Democrats secure a sixteen-seat Senate majority. “I’m very proud of that,” Michael says.

At last, with majorities sympathetic to tenants’ rights in both the Assembly and the Senate, the stage was set for this year’s landmark legislative session.

Having laid the electoral groundwork, the movement found both houses receptive to a bill that rolled back decontrol and – at long last – established a permanent rent law covering the 1 million stabilized apartments that remain in New York City, Nassau, Rockland and Westchester. Among an array of other reforms, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 goes one step further, allowing any city, town or village in the state to opt in to rent stabilization.

“Now people are organizing for rent regulation in upstate New York,” Michael says. “We can really be proud of that, too.”

Unity, vigilance and the long view
In conversation about the long haul that led to the tenant victories of 2019, Michael’s thoughts turn to Marie Runyon, his greatest influence as an organizer.

Runyon, the eminent campaigner for tenants’ rights on the Upper West Side, died last year at the age of 103. Michael met her in 1968, when she was raising funds for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign and he showed up to volunteer. Michael was twenty-eight and Runyon was fifty-two. He was instantly smitten with the North Carolina-born activist’s elegant fierceness, which remained intact – as did their friendship – for the next five decades.

Michael credits this late and much-lamented teacher and compatriot with inspiring his ability to persist over the years. On the verge of turning eighty himself, he recalls interviewing Runyon just before her eightieth birthday in 1995, when she spoke about the roots of her passion for racial, social and economic justice.

As a child of the South, Runyon told him, “I had been brought up on Jesus’s teachings.” Political activism, she said, “fit right in with what I had been taught…. I believed in it and I still believe in it.”

For his part, Michael says, religion is not what has kept him going through the long, good fight for housing justice in New York. “I’m somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist,” he says, although he has become an active member of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan with his husband, Eric Stenshoel, who introduced him to the congregation. “Saint Peter’s is an amazing community engaged in all sorts of progressive fights, including the sanctuary movement,” Michael notes.

Asked what has kept him going, Michael responds with a precis of his own brand of faith. “You can’t do community organizing unless you have an optimistic outlook,” he says. “It’s too hard. There are more defeats than victories, which is why a lot of people drop out. But I do fundamentally believe that things have gotten better and will get better still. You have to take the long view.”

He is quick to point out that taking the long view does not equal proceeding slowly. If anything, Michael feels more determined than ever to fight for a radical transformation in both the economics and the politics of housing in New York.

“The older I get, the more left I get,” he says. “It’s a matter of intensity, and possibly I’m feeling more urgency.” He adds that he is inspired by seeing so many young people who seem to be making community organizing their life’s work. “When I started out, it was not seen as a career path,” he says.

Far from resting on the laurels of this year’s success in Albany, Michael suggests that he is gearing up for battles to come – including a potential landlord backlash that tenants should be prepared to resist.

“Since I started organizing in the 1970s, an abiding goal has been to form a strong statewide organization,” Michael says. “But until recently, the tenant movement in New York City was split. The upstate tenants didn’t understand why we couldn’t settle our differences and work together. The change between then and now is that now we’re united, which is a big part of the reason we were able to win this year.”

The biggest challenge at this point, Michael believes, is tenants’ ability to remain unified and vigilant. “There’s always a danger of complacency,” he warns.

If history is any guide, Michael is right. The real estate lobby will not slink quietly away. And if that is true, then the organizing cannot stop. New troops must be mobilized to protect tenants’ recent gains and stake out new ground. Right now, one of those future fighters may out there somewhere, growing more and more exasperated with a broken window, a blown boiler or an outrageous rent bill – and a landlord who didn’t get the memo about the right to decent, affordable housing in the Empire State.

* * *

Tim Ledwith is a writer and editor who has focused primarily on international human rights issues since the mid-1990s. He previously worked in the housing movement in New York State, first as a young organizer with United Tenants of Albany and later as the editor of publications produced by the Peoples Housing Network and New York State Tenants & Neighbors. He was also a reporter at City Limits magazine and edited the newspaper of Local 802, American Federation of Musicians. Tim first met and worked with Michael McKee in the late 1970s and went on to establish a publishing business with Michael’s late partner, Louis Fulgoni. With this essay, Tim is delighted to return to his roots in the fight for fair housing.photosforjournal

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