Kathy Hochul’s Future Ambitions Create an Opening for the Left

Kathy Hochul’s Future Ambitions Create an Opening for the Left

Kathy Hochul’s Future Ambitions Create an Opening for the Left

To win reelection, New York’s governor will need to reinvent herself as a progressive Democrat. The state’s housing activists can show her how.

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In her first major move as governor since replacing the disgraced Andrew Cuomo in August, Kathy Hochul signed into a law a sweeping extension of a statewide eviction moratorium that had been set to expire. Hochul, returning to Albany for a special session, brokered a deal with Democratic legislative leaders to safeguard hundreds of thousands of tenants until January 15.

Lawmakers in New York raced back to the state capital after the Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s moratorium. Only five other states and Washington, D.C., have eviction moratoriums still in place. New York, more than most states, faced a particular catastrophe: There are millions of renters, many of them concentrated in New York City, and a significant number have struggled through the pandemic.

Hochul has only led the state since August 24, spending the past six years as Cuomo’s unassuming lieutenant governor. An unflagging loyalist who was nevertheless nowhere close to Cuomo’s inner circle, she has sought to distance herself from the former governor since a sexual harassment scandal ended his decade-long reign. Democrats in the legislature—progressives and moderates alike—have welcomed Hochul’s more collaborative approach, relishing negotiating with a more conventional politician who hasn’t sought to dominate or backstab them at every turn.

When asked if a special session to address the eviction moratorium would have even occurred under Cuomo, Michael Gianaris, the deputy leader of the state Senate, was blunt: “I doubt it.”

“He never liked to do things through the legislature,” Gianaris, a member of the Senate’s progressive faction, said. “We know so far Kathy Hochul is a much more responsible person to work with.”

But extending the moratorium, in some ways, was low-hanging fruit. The right-wing Supreme Court had made housing a charged national issue, and pressure from the grass roots was building. Before his downfall, Cuomo possessed enough clout to ignore it all, but Hochul wants to run for reelection next year.

The great question—both for housing activists and for sympathetic politicians who hope for even more in the coming months—is how far Hochul can be pushed. A native of the Buffalo area, Hochul used to serve in Congress, where she advocated Medicaid cuts and distanced herself from national Democrats in a conservative district. Cuomo named her his running mate in 2014 precisely because she offered geographical balance without bucking his ideology; both Democrats, for much of their careers, were skeptical of the left flank of the party.

Circumstances may move Hochul far away from those days. As the Erie County clerk, before her election to Congress, she made a name for herself, like future senator Kirsten Gillibrand, by aggressively opposing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Like Gillibrand, Hochul went on to repudiate her former views. It’s entirely possible that she could reinvent herself as a progressive Democrat in 2021.

Much will depend on the tenor of the next few months. Hochul could be in a tough reelection fight if the attorney general who helped end Cuomo’s career, Letitia James, jumps into the primary. Other Democrats, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are eyeing the race too. New York City voters dominate the primary, and it’s unlikely Hochul can win without making significant inroads with left-of-center voters—Black, Latino, and white alike.

This may present an opportunity for progressives. Cuomo raised millions of dollars from the real estate industry and aligned himself with landlords and real estate developers from his very first days in office. It was only in 2019, when Democrats finally took control of the state Senate—until then Cuomo had helped Republicans hold the majority—that New York strengthened its tenant protection laws, ending the ability of landlords to take housing units out of the rent-stabilization system. The Democrats in the legislature came together to force the changes down Cuomo’s throat. Had it remained up to him, tenants would still enjoy as little leverage as possible in New York.

The next priority for housing activists and their allies in the legislature is the so-called “good cause eviction” bill. Dropped from the 2019 negotiations at the last minute, the legislation would block landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent in cases where an “unreasonable” increase in rent occurred. “Unreasonable” is defined as any increase exceeding 3 percent of the annual rent, or 150 percent of the region’s Consumer Price Index, as set by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—whichever is higher.

A housing law specific to New York City forbids the City Council from enacting a good cause provision for the five boroughs without state approval, but the city of Albany was already able to pass local legislation modeled on the state bill.

Cuomo, along with the real estate lobby, was a fierce opponent of good cause. Hochul has yet to take a public position, and her office did not respond to a request for comment. Activists are hopeful that if the bill makes it through the legislature, Hochul would sign it.

The Democrat-dominated state Assembly, which has emerged as the more conservative and real estate–friendly of the two legislative chambers, did not rally the votes for good cause in 2019.

Beyond good cause, legislators are looking to create a new statewide housing voucher program, modeled on Section 8, to reduce homelessness. They also hope to push Hochul to make good on an early promise to pump far more state money into the beleaguered public housing stock of New York City.

Cuomo offered little state funding for public housing when he was in office—less than one billion over a decade for a city housing authority with capital needs that could exceed $50 billion—and lawmakers recalled frustrating fights to get more out of the executive branch.

“The legislature would push for very large amounts of capital and the governor would push very hard back to diminish or eliminate allocations [for public housing],” said Brian Kavanagh, chairman of the state Senate’s Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development. “The governor’s office would often delay payments, sometimes for years, with very little explanation.”

Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a statewide tenants’ rights organization, is optimistic that much more is possible with Cuomo out of office. But Weaver worries that Cuomo’s downfall, brought about by a sexual harassment scandal rather than a defeat at the polls, still left intact the political forces that had thwarted housing activists for so many years.

“We didn’t beat Cuomo’s politics,” Weaver said. “I would be so happy sitting here and telling you the left in New York built a big enough base of working-class Black and brown New Yorkers who Cuomo relies on. We didn’t turn Cuomo’s base.”

For the left in New York going forward, this will be crucial: winning over working-class voters who traditionally sided with Cuomo and other establishment-backed candidates against insurgents. Young leftists in Albany and the activists around them are boosting policies to help the most vulnerable, giving tenants much more leverage over landlords. Their ability, in Weaver’s words, to “turn” the base may determine how far they go—and if the dreams of a more progressive New York are ever realized.

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