At a recent community forum on rent stabilization in Minneapolis, my City Council member argued that rent control was not a good instrument for addressing poverty or racism because it also benefits well-off white renters, or people who are low income when they first move in, but still benefit when they become well-off. ‘Even though they financially no longer need it,’ she said, ‘they stay in the rent-controlled apartment because it is too good of a deal.’
The comment made me think about my grandparents who lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Queens, New York City. Moving in as refugees with nothing, staying for decades, even when their fortunes turned, they fit the profile my Councilwoman put forward.
There is much I do not know about my grandparents’ situation. My memories of their apartment where they lived until my grandfather’s death, are those of a small child. I remember the outside of the building as pink, and not distinguishable from other massive apartment buildings next to it. The inner stairwell was dark and scary to me. We climbed what felt like forever. There was no elevator, or at least we did not use one.
The apartment was big in terms of New York space: Three bedrooms in a row connected by a narrow hallway, each big enough for bed and dresser. Each had German cuckoo clocks on the wall, with metal chimes that looked like poop to me.
At one end of the bedroom hallway was a kitchen, big enough for a small table and one cook. My grandmother kept it locked at night. At the other end there was a living space divided into three parts. The best part was a floor to ceiling window alcove where my grandmother grew a rubber tree that took up the entire space. There was also an inner alcove, with wood and glass doors, just big enough for my grandfather’s record player and collection of opera music. In the middle was a couch. Above it a mother and child self-portrait painted by my aunt. My grandfather’s leather chair faced the couch. He would sit and smoke cigars and listen to Wagnerian operas.
When my grandparents came to the US as refugees from Nazi Germany, my grandfather got a job as an elevator operator and my grandma sold cakes at a local bakery. When my grandpa died two decades later, he was a doctor who had achieved enough note that there was a small article about him on the New York Times obituary page detailing his pioneering research in what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
With the aid of a rent control apartment and probably some programs for refugees, my grandparents climbed the financial ladder. They were also hugely advantaged by the timing of their arrival in the US, which coincided with the period in US race history in which European Jews became white people. My grandparents were able to help their refugee children attend prestigious colleges and become financially successful themselves.
I don’t know if the fact that people like my grandparents stayed in that apartment was a good or bad thing for the neighborhood, or for housing justice. The building remained a place for refugee families, and I believe it still is today.
I do know that rent control is only one of the policy instruments we need to achieve housing justice. Reparations for racist housing policies such as redlining, racial covenants, and prejudicial banking policies, must happen too. Policies and practices today that deny housing to people who served time in prison, and to single mothers, must end. But just because rent stabilization doesn’t solve everything, doesn’t mean it is not a powerful instrument in the fight against profiteering landlords and developers. Until housing is treated as a human right in our society, we need to take a multipronged approach to housing justice. If some people gain financial well-being as a result of stable rents, so be it.