2019 Albany Legislative Wrap-Up: Progressive Wins

By Jack C

Legislation alone can never fully provide poor and working people with the protections they need or guarantee them lives with dignity. However, as we organize and agitate for a more socialist future, legislative wins in the short term can act as harm reduction and pave the way for more significant changes down the line. This article summarizes a handful of wins in the 2019 New York State legislative session, some the result of DSA/progressive organizing, some just good to know, encompassing licenses for undocumented people, statewide rent protections, and more.

Licenses for Undocumented People

The New York Immigration Coalition, a collection of about 200 different immigrant rights groups, alongside the Green Light Coalition, made the passage of “Green Light NY” a major focus for 2019. Starting in October, undocumented people in the state of New York will be able to acquire drivers licenses, thanks to an immense effort that combined pressure on elected officials and the mobilization of thousands of supporters. For many New Yorkers, in and out of the City, driving is a part of daily life, and for many undocumented people, getting pulled over could mean deportation. Every trip to work, the grocery store, their children’s school, or the doctor’s office is a risk. The bill was seen as a way to improve the quality of life and guarantee an essential right for undocumented people in New York.

Undocumented New Yorkers were actually able to get licenses before 9/11. Former Governor Elliot Spitzer attempted to reinstate the policy, but was met by a resistance movement led by then-County Clerk, now-Lt. Governor, Kathy Hochul. Green Light NY was resurrected recently and organizers saw the Democrat-controlled legislative session as an ideal opportunity for passage. They identified a handful of key state senators who needed to be swayed in order to pass the bill. The “Long Island 6,” six Democratic holdouts on Long Island (plus one upstate senator), were seen as a fundamental obstacle to the bill’s success.

What ensued was a full-court press wherein organizers brought huge volumes of mobilized supporters to bear, occupying and surrounding politicians’ offices and encircling the state legislature, in addition to the standard sit-down meetings that are de rigueur in the legislative process. A tipping point was reached when Gov. Cuomo announced that he would sign the bill into law if it were passed. State senator and NYC-DSA member Julia Salazar’s efforts in Albany also deserve special mention for her unceasing work on behalf of this bill. She showed up at numerous events, spoke about the bill in committees and with other electeds, and helped make connections for the Coalition.

Green Light NY would not have passed without the concerted effort of organizers (including DSAers from branches outside of NYC) and mobilized supporters.

Reproductive Rights

Reproductive rights have been under constant attack in America since long before Roe vs. Wade, but with increasing intensity during the Trump administration. This past year saw the passage of a trio of bills that seek to provide more freedom and security in this realm: the Reproductive Health Act, the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, and the “Boss Bill,” which prevent employers from discriminating against employees based on personal information about them (such as their reproductive health choices).

The Reproductive Health Act is designed to ensure access to safe, legal abortions and takes abortion out of the realm of Penal Law to the heading of Public Health Law. The latter categorical change aims to protect the state law from future federal meddling. In addition to these new protections for abortion-seekers, it also extends the window for abortions past the prior limit of 23 weeks if the fetus is nonviable or if there is a risk to the mother’s health or life. New York now has one of the most progressive abortion laws in the country.

The Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act requires that all health insurance companies provide cost-free contraceptives for anyone they cover, including emergency contraception. Additionally, companies are also required to pay for voluntary sterilization services for both men and women. Education, counseling, and follow-up services are also covered. While fights for abortion rights are vital, expanding the availabilty of other reproductive healthcare goes hand in hand with these efforts.

Congestion Pricing

Londoners have dealt with paying a fee to enter the downtown core of their city for years, and starting in 2021, New Yorkers who wish to drive south of 60th Street in Manhattan will have to do so as well. Dubbed the “Central Business District Tolling Program,” the details of the program are yet to be determined, and will be handled by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

Some elements are known, though: as tolling in NY State continues to switch over to electronic means, congestion tolls will be assessed via E-Z Pass or toll-by-mail based on images of the driver’s plates. Drivers who live within the zone and make less than 60,000 per year will be granted a tax credit (neoliberalism’s answer to everything). Speaking of neoliberalism: Uber and other ride-hail services are already being hit with congestion fees (as are yellow cabs). Shared cars (your Uber Pools and Vias) are charged a smaller fee. The upside to all this is that about 80% of the revenue from this program will go towards city transit work (subway track work, new subway cars, new busses, etc.). While the congestion fee will undoubtedly adversely affect poorer drivers entering Midtown and below (and do little to stem the tide of rich people doing whatever they want), at least the new income stream may do some good in bolstering the cash-strapped MTA.

Rent Protections 

by Cea W

Our current system of rent control is the product of centuries of struggle between organized tenants and landlords. New York has had some version of rent control since the 1920s, when postwar housing shortages caused widespread price gouging in rental apartments. But the most current iteration of this perennial struggle can most easily be traced to 1997, when the then Republican statehouse, fueled by ALEC and real estate money, poked fatal loopholes in our rent stabilization system—essentially ensuring its own self destruction.

In 2017, in advance of the June 15, 2019 sunset of rent stabilization, tenants and homeless New Yorkers from across the State of New York came together to begin to prepare for the fight. The group met at a church in Albany, to lay out a vision for a New York State that is free from unconscionable rent hikes and evictions. NYC-DSA, along with Nassau County DSA and Mid-Hudson Valley DSA, are members of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. The Alliance, which leads the Housing Justice for All campaign, is a coalition of over 70 groups that represent tenants and homeless New Yorkers from across the entire State of New York, from Brooklyn to Buffalo. The housing movement is typically siloed into local neighborhood struggles or into issue-specific fights: for public housing, to end homelessness, regulated or unregulated renters, etc. But the Alliance and other groups knew that the 2019 rent law fight was a fight for New York’s soul, and that standing united behind a bold vision for universal rent control was the only way to win.

Renter protections are regularly pitted against workers by stoking fears of destroying construction and the housing market. It was critical that we stick together and present a united front. When landlords claimed that universal rent control would destroy jobs, the Alliance countered with a public letter, signed by unions representing 2.5 million New York workers, in support of its demands. Near the end of session in Albany, there was immense pressure on the group to weaken rent protection demands and to acknowledge that universal rent control would be too hard to win. This was a tough strategic decision—either go to the table and negotiate on rent protection bills, or to continue to hold out for more and more. The fact that the coalition held together in this moment—when the stakes were higher than and there was perhaps no right answer—is one of the defining moments of this fight. Ultimately, the coalition held out, continued to demand the impossible, and won. Next year, organizers say, they’re going back for more.

Thanks to this hard work, tenant protections in New York State are stronger than they have been in a generation. Prior to June 15, rent regulations were only legal in the 5 boroughs of New York City and the surrounding 3 counties. Today they are legal across the entire State. It’s harder than ever before for a landlord to successfully win an eviction case against a renter, and vacancy decontrol has been eliminating. Rent regulations are permanent. However, there’s still much to do before every New Yorker lives free from the fear of eviction. Notably, renter protections still only cover buildings with 6 or more apartments. 92,000 people are homeless, and the public housing is in disrepair. There is plenty more for the housing justice movement to fight for, and reasons to be hopeful.