Calls to Defund the Police Are Joining the Demand to Cancel Rent

The combination of rising property values and billowing police budgets have transformed New York City since the 1970s. Now, movements to defund the police are coalescing with calls to cancel rent.

A man stands on the balcony of a high-rise building in New York City. (Bryan Thomas / Getty Images)

In 2014, at a fundraiser for the Police Foundation, the newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, hobnobbed with the city’s elite. Among the luminaries in attendance were billionaire Wall Street investor Carl Icahn and real estate developer Bill Rudin, whose company converted St Vincent’s Hospital into a complex of luxury condominiums with units starting at the mere pittance of $16,320,623.57.

As reported by the journalist Josmar Trujillo, the gala marked the first hundred days of de Blasio’s mayoralty and Bratton’s second stint as commissioner. Attendees were honored with keepsakes that included bullets and bulletproof vests courtesy of the NYPD. But the most important guests in the room, the coterie of millionaires and billionaires, were provided with the highest honor of the night: incontrovertible evidence of how private property and policing mutually constitute wealth accumulation under capitalism.

To this august assemblage of the city’s most powerful residents, Bratton presented slides juxtaposing drops in crime against the accompanying rise in property values in the same neighborhoods. Mayor de Blasio, ostensibly elected as a repudiation of his predecessor’s heavy-handed policing tactics, gushed with praise: “It’s actually incredibly inspiring to see what the work of the NYPD has achieved.… Let’s thank them for all they’ve done. I will also note, as a homeowner in Brooklyn, I was struck by the real-estate value map. There’s good news all around tonight.”

The combination of rising property values and billowing police budgets have transformed the city to the detriment of many, no one more so than working-class New Yorkers of color who are squeezed by higher rents and constant police harassment. Movements to defund the police are coalescing with calls to cancel rent, as activists increasingly understand that both are essential for achieving racial and economic justice.

Fear City

The real estate industry’s domination of New York City since the neoliberal turn in the mid-1970s is inextricably linked to racist policing. As researchers Gin Armstrong and Derek Seidman from the Public Accountability Initiative have found, police foundations across country have partnered with corporations to supplement their budgets and purchase equipment with no public oversight — including SWAT equipment, Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) sound equipment, drones, ballistic helmets, and a surveillance network of over 12,000 cameras, among other war weaponry.

Police departments have entered into an alliance with asset manager BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and most troubling of all given its interest in facial recognition technology, Amazon. Those ties, argue Armstrong and Seidman, “provide a key space where the relationship between the corporate elite and police forces are solidified.” BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink cochaired the NYC Police Foundation’s annual gala from 2017 to 2019, for which in 2019 alone, he raised $5.5 million.

Since Michael Bloomberg declared his intention to transform NYC into a “luxury product” and “to attract more very fortunate people,” because “they are the ones that pay the bills,” the neoliberal transformation of New York City went into overdrive with more than 120 neighborhoods rezoned and rents increasing by 75 percent — all while wages only grew 31 percent in the same period.

Bloomberg did introduce “inclusionary housing” to New York, but the word inclusionary was stretched beyond meaning. As the geographer Samuel Stein wrote in this magazine, “most of the inclusionary housing was targeted to households making 80 percent of AMI [Area Median Income], or roughly $61,920” — more than the city’s average income, let alone a given neighborhood’s standard. Some new apartments were built for what were termed “middle-income households;” with rents around $3,380 a month, these were targeted at those making 175 percent of the AMI, or $135,293.

Paloma Lara, an organizer at Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale/Alto Manhattan No Se Vende, got her start in tenant organizing as a sixteen-year-old through GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) when her criminally negligent landlord tried to get her non–English speaking immigrant parents to foot the bill for a major capital improvement after the boiler exploded in the building where she and her parents lived.

“People are not just being displaced from their homes by money-hungry landlords, they’re being evicted from their neighborhoods by the state,” she told Jacobin. “In order to bring in more real estate moguls, wealth, and tax revenue, NYC has completely destroyed neighborhoods through vicious rezonings that have led to gentrification and massive displacement.” She takes particular aim at “Mayor de Blasio’s destructive Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy” that facilitates luxury development in exchange for an inadequate amount of ‘affordable’ housing.”

Despite de Bill de Blasio’s talk of “a tale of two cities” in his campaign, New York City under his mayoralty has continued to kowtow to developers’ interests. As Stein argues in his book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, both Bloomberg and de Blasio “believed in a bigger and stronger police force, and encouraged crackdowns on homeless people and other ‘quality of life’ offenders. They both subscribed to the same planning paradigm, whatever the problem, the solution is luxury development.”

Municipal Socialism & Neoliberalism

Under Bloomberg, NYC reached the apotheosis of a long, simmering conflict between the working class and elite business interests whose main priorities were to boost property values and their own profits. In her latest book, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, historian Kim Phillips-Fein’s provides a comprehensive look at this struggle leading up to and during 1975 fiscal crisis.

In the decades leading up to the 1970s, the working class in New York City held significant — though by no means dominating —power, with private and public sector unions strong enough to create a form of municipal socialism. From the 1930s to the 1960s, they pushed the city to invest in a wide range of public services, like the subway system, housing, hospitals, libraries, museums, parks, and swimming pools.

Perhaps most emblematic of this era was the creation of the City University of New York, which offered high-quality education free of charge. Its flagship campus was widely known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat” — although like many of the era’s programs, largely excluded New Yorkers of color. The city’s social spending and union wages were also underwritten by state and federal support. From 1964–65 to 1970–71, federal grants rose from 6 to 17 percent of New York City’s municipal budget, while state grants increased from 19 to 26 percent, according to Phillips-Fein.

But as deindustrialization shifted manufacturing first to the suburbs, then to southern states and finally overseas, and as the Latino and black population increased when whites fled the city, a growing racial resentment set in, which often claimed that unworthy people of color were the beneficiaries of white tax dollars.

This backlash coincided with the curtailment of federal and state funding that supported an expansive social sector. Thus, the era of the Great Society came to an end — and when Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he did so with a mandate to end the “era of permissiveness.” By then, elite business interests were well-positioned to claim a monopoly on the city’s future.

As Phillips-Fein argues, unlike the industrialists of the postwar years who saw a clear rationale both to invest in public goods and keep rents — and therefore wages — low, the financial industry managers and real estate developers of the 1970s had a different set of priorities. This rising class of bankers and developers blamed high social spending and ballooning debt for causing the fiscal crisis. They wanted lower taxes for themselves and pushed for tax incentives to attract and retain businesses.

If the city government was to reverse the decline in its tax base, it would have to cater more to investors and wealthy residents. Indeed, “the major lesson that a generation of New Yorkers took from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s was that appealing to the private sector was the only way to build the city,” writes Phillips-Fein. Instead of municipal socialism, New York transitioned to a model geared toward gentrification and “stop-and-frisk” policing.

It is a strategy that has succeeded in boosting the real estate sector in the long term. Landlords and wealthy homeowners have been the major beneficiaries as property values in the city have exploded, tripling between 2000 and 2017 from $382 billion to $1.47 trillion.

Local governments have an incentive to raise property values since property taxes are typically their largest source of tax revenue at about 30 percent. For NYC, it’s even higher at 44 percent.

In this context, the NYPD has been rewarded for its role in raising property values for landlords and developers, with police funding increasing despite record-low crime rates. The NYPD’s budget has grown steadily since the early 1980s to $11 billion in 2020. Only the departments of education and social services receive more public money.

From #DefundthePolice to #CancelRent

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, renters are pushing back and connecting the dots between insecure housing and police violence. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were teetering on the brink of eviction or sleeping on the street, while segregated in neighborhoods without support systems or living-wage jobs.

According to Michael Velarde, a Chicano labor and community organizer, the crisis facing New Yorkers today “has unfolded over generations of capital withdrawal, landlord neglect, and government abandonment that set the stage for the gentrification and displacement. When whites, capital, and the state withdrew from urban centers, they installed the police to oversee Black and Brown workers.”

He explains the interplay between police violence and the concentrated need in public housing. “The New York Police Department’s budget is dramatically outsized when compared to NYCHA, Velarde, told The New Republic, and ‘decades of investment in the police, as well as neoliberal cuts to social spending more broadly, have resulted in over $45 billion in essential repairs owed to NYCHA residents.’”

Michael Higgins, member of the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, finds that “there is unwarranted trust in landlords who are often breaking the law and a distrust in tenants who are fighting to live in dignity by law enforcement that is becoming more clear in this moment than ever before.”

No better site of struggle throws into sharper relief these contradictions than housing where the criminal neglect by landlords and city officials plays out in lurid displays of asymmetrical power. Juan Cano, a 32BJ Service Employees International Union maintenance worker in the commercial division, and his neighbors formed a tenant association at their 386 East 139 Street building in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. In 2018, the tenant association sued their landlord due to a long history of violations, including rat infestations, water leaks, and lack of heat and hot water. Today, according to Emmanuel Pardilla, founder of the South Bronx Tenant Movement, the landlord Saul Piller continues to harass tenants, threatening to call immigration or offering buyouts of up to five thousand dollars.

Piller’s father is the notorious slumlord Moshe Piller who has a history replete with abuses and neglect, including the death of two babies, one-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and two-year-old Ibanez Ambrose, at 720 Hunts Point Ave., who suffered second- and third-degree burns after a steam valve came off a radiator, filling the girls’ room with scalding hot steam. After the incident, de Blasio went on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show and said, “Look, I own it.” Yet still, the Piller family continues to enjoy the benefit of city contracts through the cluster site program.

Instead of enforcing housing code violations, the city government focuses on policing black bodies including in their own homes. The NYPD murders of Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn public housing stairwell and Amadou Diallo in his lobby in the Bronx are two cases in point.

Renewed tenant organizing is challenging these landlord abuses, and the call to cancel rent is amplifying across the city, with powerful ramifications for the whole capitalist system. In the words of Bronx tenant organizer, Jay Espy: “When you say cancel rent, you are really saying cancel the landlord as an entity to make them obsolete and reverse the extraction of wealth. These landlords have looted us, literally drained us. Now workers want to take back what is ours.”

Socialists have long argued that police exist to protect property, and in recent decades police have focused on urban real estate. Elites understand these links well. Mayor Bloomberg, during the Occupy Wall Street protests, smugly boasted: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.”

Around that time, Emmanuel Pardilla, organizer with the South Bronx Tenant Movement, was a high school student and frequent target of stop-and-frisk. Activists like him are increasingly drawing the links between rising rents, gentrification, and policing in New York, with campaigns to defund the police merging with those to cancel rents. To build a city where we can all live with dignity requires breaking the power of the landlords and their enforcers, the police.