Op-Ed | In the Bronx, we can have both good housing and a strong democracy

Coins stacked on one side of a scale, blurred background.
The Public Campaign Finance Program is designed to give more political power to regular New Yorkers, says Karen Wharton.
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Democracy is more than just a noble idea. The health of our society relies on the ability of everyday people to participate in how it runs. The issues that impact our lives — from economics to education, housing, health care, childcare, climate policy and our criminal legal system — are united by one thread: Government must invest public money into the well-being of everyday people, rather than handing out corporate welfare. Consequently, one of the more impactful investments of public money into the public good is investing in democracy.

In the United States of America, it is through democracy that we, the people, ultimately are able to address the issues that impact our lives, so we need and deserve a democracy that is truly representative. That’s why it’s critical that our state leaders implement the Public Campaign Finance Program as planned, with no delay.

The statewide Public Campaign Finance Program was passed into law in the 2020 budget, with the start date of the 2024 election cycle. The voluntary program allows legislative and statewide candidates who opt in and qualify to receive public matching funds for individual contributions of $5-$250. This enables candidates — incumbents and challengers alike — to spend their time fundraising among the everyday people they seek to represent. These candidates, once in office, are then beholden to their constituents and their interests, as opposed to wealthy megadonors.

New York voters prefer this model, and 70% of us want our elected officials to prioritize countering the influence of wealthy donors in politics. In the 2022 election cycle, 200 of New York’s wealthiest residents gave approximately $16 million to state races while 206,000 everyday New Yorkers gave a little more than $13 million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. If money talks, then 200 wealthy New Yorkers have a much greater say in our democracy than 206,000 everyday New Yorkers — which has adverse effects on matters that are important to the health of our society.

Let’s take housing, for example. Median rents in the Bronx have been increasing by double digits. Furthermore, the Bronx is the most rent-burdened borough in New York City, with the average resident paying a staggering 45% of their annual income in rent. Bronxites experience the second highest eviction filing rate in the state!

From astronomical rent increases to lease renewal refusals and evictions without cause, predatory and unscrupulous landlords are profiting from the lack of legal regulations.

The Good Cause tenant protections are a piece of legislation that may or may not make it into the state budget this year. The legislation is intended to end unreasonable and unconscionable rent hikes that are akin to arbitrary evictions. It also guarantees that renters can no longer be evicted in retaliation for opposing unsafe and inhumane living conditions, or displaced in order to gentrify neighborhoods. This legislation prioritizes the freedom and security of all renters in the state by putting human beings ahead of corporate profit. At the same time, it protects owner-occupied buildings of three units or less, safeguarding homeowners who rely on rental income to make their mortgages.

But the future of Good Cause is still uncertain, and it’s clear who opposes it. The real estate lobby has spent almost $20 million in just the past four years to stop the Good Cause bill and other pro-tenant legislation, according to a report by Housing Justice for All and LittleSis. The monies obtained from our communities through sky-high rents are then used to fight against our collective welfare. Heads, they win; tails, we lose.

This clearly illustrates why the need for the statewide Public Campaign Finance Program is so dire. We want and need a democracy where our communities have as much power as a big corporation does. A $50 donation from an everyday resident of the Bronx to their candidate of choice should matter more than a $500 donation from a wealthy donor from outside of the borough with real estate interests in it. This is one of the best things about the design of the Public Campaign Finance Program: It gives the most power to the smallest donations — meaning that the people who most need the state government to start representing their interests finally have a real say in politics.

As negotiations over the state budget continue in Albany this week, it’s crucial that our legislators and our governor fund the Public Campaign Finance Program and include Good Cause tenant protections. Any excuses not to are really a matter of our priorities. It’s crucial that we invest public money in the public good, rather than continuing to give public handouts to rich corporations who, in turn, donate massively to campaigns that drown out everyday people’s voices in the political process.

Karen Wharton is the democracy coalition coordinator for Citizen Action of New York.

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