Sen. Julia Salazar, bane of the real estate industry, talks rent laws and property rights

The unapologetically progressive senator says decommodifying housing and expanding tenant rights statewide are still on the agenda


She’s been called a communist, a socialist, and someone who doesn’t believe in traditional private property rights. On the eve of the rent law vote, The Real Deal‘s Georgia Kromrei and Kathryn Brenzel sat down with freshman Sen. Julia Salazar to discuss her “Good Cause,” eviction bill, her ideology, her ideas about property rights and when she is — and isn’t — willing to come to the table. Here are some highlights from our hour-long conversation with Salazar in her Albany office:

Georgia Kromrei: How can the real estate industry engage the new left in the Senate in particular?

Salazar: That’s a good question. I think it’s always important, just as it’s important for the left to seriously engage with the arguments of the opposition, I think it would be wise for industry actors to take concerns seriously of those of us who are advocating hard for stronger tenant protections.

I often found in the last several months especially, and from what I witnessed during the public hearings that the legislature hosted, that those who were representing the real estate industry’s perspective were often responding to our concerns or our proposals with straw man arguments or red herrings, saying that passing stronger rent regulations would completely destroy the market or disincentivize development, particularly affordable housing development.

I wasn’t convinced that they truly believed that. It seemed to me like a cynical argument. I also think that it is not very persuasive when an organization with several billionaires on its board claims to be representing the interests of so called mom and pop landlords, or landlords who don’t have big portfolios or big profit margins. It’s just not very compelling.

So I think that as far as, rather than just criticizing them, I think the recommendation would probably be to engage seriously with middle class and working class New Yorkers, including property owners. One thing that I found was interesting when seeking support in the legislature for the good cause eviction bill, there’s a senator who represents parts of the Bronx, and he signed on almost immediately. To him, it was really clear that this would provide stability in the market, and he was concerned about people in his district not being able to afford to live there. He has a lot of tenants in his district in both public housing and not, regulated and not, but a lot of regulated tenants.

It’s predominately a community of color and very few of them can afford to become homeowners, which is an interesting take — that he supported the bill because he saw it as a way of stabilizing the market where currently we’re seeing, not just in his district but in my own district and in a lot of districts that are gentrifying in New York City, we’re seeing very wealthy property owners, most of whom don’t actually live in the district, coming in and purchasing properties, raising rents and having this destabilizing effect, whether it’s many small buildings or converting small buildings to larger. A number of practices that are not accessible to the people who currently live in the district. The apartments aren’t accessible to our constituents and furthermore, even the ability to purchase property is increasingly inaccessible when property values are skyrocketing.

That was an interesting perspective that he offered, but all of that is to say that I encountered small property owners who had a very different perspective. Some of them shared concerns that I heard from the real estate lobby. First of all, I was more willing to take those concerns seriously from these property owners who I could see they were actually concerned about being able to afford to maintain their buildings. When people speak from their lived experience, it’s much more compelling than billionaires “larping” as middle- or working-class New Yorkers.

GK: Do you think the housing market should be a business commodity, and if not, do you have an alternative proposal?

Salazar: I think we have a responsibility as a society, and as a government, as a state, to ensure that every person has basic shelter, basic accommodations, I should say because I don’t actually support the creation of, for example, additional homeless shelters. I prefer and advocate for the development of permanent housing for people who are currently displaced. But most fundamentally, I believe that housing is a human right. I believe that we have the resources, collectively to ensure that everyone is housed.

From there, the question of do I think that it should be a commodity, I think if there were a way for there to still be housing for profit, I guess, while guaranteeing that everyone has a place to live and can survive and thrive without fear of eviction, then it wouldn’t necessarily matter to me, if people who have disposable income want to live in a luxury apartment and pay the landlord. I don’t have a problem with that exchange necessarily. I’m not certain practically how viable a social democratic model is in the US because we’ve never seen it.

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But I think meaning that the market, that there’s still for profit real estate, and that there is a serious investment from the state, a robust investment from the state in ensuring that there’s affordable housing and even free housing for those who really need it.

I would be supportive of that, but right now I’m really committed to, on the one hand, seeing the state invest more in providing housing for people, and also really fighting to change the laws so that those who currently are in the less powerful position, tenants, to put it really generally, are empowered, because the power dynamic, in the law and just practically in terms of resources, vastly favors property owners.

GK: What do you say to people who view the expansion of rent regulations as a form of socialized housing, and who accuse you of being a communist?

Salazar: The truth is I am a democratic socialist. I won’t deny that. I also do not believe that you need to agree with every tenet of democratic socialism in order to support the foundational idea that housing is a human right. Essentially, I’m not bothered by the accusation that I am a socialist or a communist. It’s accurate in the sense that I don’t believe that housing should be for profit, because of the harm that I’ve seen as a result of it, and so I also have a realistic outlook on our society, and I don’t expect for-profit housing to cease in my lifetime. Regardless, so for that reason I think maybe it’s not totally accurate to describe myself as a communist, but I’m a Marxist, and I’m not ashamed of that.

At the same time, yeah, I think that on the other hand there is increasing support for democratic socialism, I think, in society, in the U.S., and instead of just refusing to engage with it, it would be wise for not only the real estate industry, but anyone who cares about effecting policy and social change, to seriously engage with it even if they don’t agree with it or identify with it.

GK: We’ve talked a lot about tenants’ rights and your convictions about tenants’ rights. How do you feel about property owners and property rights in general? Many would argue it’s a fundamental value of our society and something that many marginalized communities have been excluded from historically. What do you think about property rights?

Salazar: I guess the way that I believe we should treat land and value land, and my beliefs that us, as a society, we have a collective responsibility, and also as human beings deserve to have equal access to the land, but that it doesn’t truly belong to us even we have the monetary resources to purchase it and, to put it really bluntly, to take it away from someone else or from the collective, if it isn’t owned by someone else or wasn’t lost by someone else. But not to be way out in space right now, I think I share the concern about equity and equitable access to property ownership, so I’m sympathetic to the desire to see more people of color owning property, especially as someone who represents … I’m Latina. I don’t own property. I’m a tenant. Based on my own income and resources, I currently can’t really imagine responsibly purchasing property, so I understand I think the frustration, to a degree at least, the frustration with that being out of reach because you’re young, because you’re a young woman, because of the career path you chose, whatever, whatever it is, because of your own socioeconomic circumstances.

I’m concerned about, particularly because of historical and current racist injustice, black New Yorkers not having the access to wealth and property that many or most other people have just by virtue of race, and likewise for other discriminated classes in our society. So I’m concerned about equity, for sure, but I don’t think that discrimination and systemic barriers to people of color owning property, I don’t think that those things exist in a vacuum, so I feel it is our responsibility as legislators, and my responsibility, to simultaneously, but actually even more so, address the barriers that prevent people from being able to achieve stability and accumulate wealth with the same access and at the same rate as everyone else.

GK: Jay Martin from CHIP said that he would like to have a meeting with you. Would you meet with him?

Salazar: Yeah, I would be totally willing to meet with him. Generally I don’t have a problem meeting with anyone who’s opposed to my political stances. I think it’s healthy and really important in the legislative process that I have multiple informed perspectives. The only reason that I wouldn’t meet with someone is if we just have absolutely no common ground as human beings, which is to say that’s not the case for anyone I know of it in real estate industry, for Jay Martin, for CHIP. Unless someone is literally a Nazi, I’m willing to meet with them.