Tenant organizer challenging incumbent doesn’t think “anyone should be paying rent”

Phara Souffrant’s housing plan includes “good cause” eviction, taxing speculators and expanding rights of market-rate tenants

TRD New York /
Oct.October 02, 2019 02:32 PM
Phara Souffrant and Assemblymember Walter Mosley (Credit: YouTube and Getty Images)

Phara Souffrant and Assemblymember Walter Mosley (Credit: YouTube and Getty Images)

A tenant organizer backed by the socialist group that helped propel Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into Congress is targeting a Brooklyn legislator — and landlords.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think anyone should be paying rent,” said Phara Souffrant, whose campaign against Assemblymember Walter Mosley is supported by the Democratic Socialists of America. “That’s my hidden agenda.”

Mosley has for seven years represented District 57, which includes Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Souffrant said she hopes to “spark a conversation” about Mosley, who “has not had any spice in a long time.”

Mosley, who said he was an early supporter of Salazar’s “good cause” eviction bill and statewide rent regulation, said he welcomes the challenge. Mosley cautioned Souffrant against not engaging with developers and called Souffrant’s partisan politics “idealistic.”

“I hope that my opponent realizes you’re not living in a silo. You’re not living in a neighborhood that people don’t want to develop in. I have to engage with [real estate] to demand what we need and what we want,” Mosley said.

Souffrant is putting a pro-tenant agenda front and center in her campaign.

The 30-year-old registered nurse and founder of her building’s tenant association in Crown Heights said her first priority would be to pass Sen. Julia Salazar’s “good cause” eviction bill. Souffrant also plans to push for a tax on speculation and tighten the newly permanent rent law to close “loopholes” — namely, the rules for market-rate units.

“We have this lovely program and we made it forever. Great. But now we have to work on the legislation,” Souffrant said. “We need to expand these protections beyond just rent-stabilized tenants.”

Souffrant is using an electoral playbook that gained currency with Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win over Rep. Joseph Crowley in Queens and the Bronx last year: spurning developer dollars, running on a pro-tenant platform and counting on the support of DSA’s electoral powerhouse to challenge an incumbent Democrat from the left. Assemblymember Diana Richardson was the first to employ this strategy, in a high-profile special election for the Assembly in 2015. Richardson was endorsed by the Crown Heights Tenant Union, of which Souffrant is also a member.

Acknowledging that campaigns require resources, Souffrant plans to cut costs by sharing office space and other expenses with another DSA-backed candidate — Jabari Brisport, who is running for the State Senate in a closely overlapping district.

Tascha Van Auken, co-chair of Brooklyn DSA’s electoral working group, noted that the two will likely collaborate on research and canvassing. The two candidates will launch their campaigns together this weekend.

One of more than 60 tenant organizers arrested in Albany on June 4, Souffrant said she was not afraid to confront the Assembly leadership.

“People like Carl Heastie: if you’re not with us you’re against us,” Souffrant said of the Assembly speaker. “Very candidly, [I am] not negotiating with you.”

The State Assembly was a hurdle for tenant advocates this year, even as the leftward-lurching Senate dramatically shifted the dynamics in Albany. While the Assembly had in the past rubber-stamped many of their bills, knowing the legislation would die in the Republican-controlled Senate, the Democratic takeover of the upper chamber and primary losses by some Senate Democrats in the 2018 election gave those bills a real possibility of becoming law.

Tenant advocates faced the strongest opposition to their agenda in the 150-member Assembly, which includes many upstate Democrats with no rent regulation in their districts. Throughout the campaign, the Upstate/Downstate coalition used a mix of tactics to influence lawmakers, including deploying their allies in the Assembly to whip votes while tracking assemblymembers’ stances from social media, meetings and public statements in an elaborate cloud-based tracking system shared among their coalition.

To shift the terrain even more in tenants’ favor, DSA’s electoral wing is wasting no time running candidates for the Assembly in 2020. Its challengers also include tenant organizer Marcela Mitaynes and Boris Santos, Salazar’s former chief of staff, who recently said “the Assembly needs more comrades.” The DSA’s endorsement process, which ended earlier this week, included candidate forums and questionnaires submitted to the membership and a final vote from the Citywide Leadership Committee, New York City DSA’s highest democratically elected leadership body.

Souffrant, taking an even harder line than Salazar — the North Brooklyn senator who told TRD she was willing to meet with anyone unless they were “literal nazis” — said she will not be having any conversations with real estate interests.

“I’m coming for you,” Souffrant said. “And I don’t owe you my time.”

Assemblyman Walter Mosley (Credit: Getty Images)

Assemblyman Walter Mosley (Credit: Getty Images)


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