Charles Barron pledges to support rent reform bills.

Outraged activists, distressed renters, proud union leaders, mayoral campaigners, assembly members, state senators, and at least one reporter attended Brooklyn’s Tenant Town Hall last night. The participant list blossomed around 6:45pm, and neared 270 at its pinnacle. On the virtual discussion table was a package of nine bills to address New York City’s growing housing crisis, a crisis that mass unemployment throughout the pandemic has exacerbated. As many as one million current renting households in New York are at risk of eviction if moratoriums are lifted—or if housing bills aren’t passed to protect vulnerable tenants.

The Brooklyn Tenant Town Hall agenda was simple: explain the bills, humanize the bills, and implore the elected officials present to pledge their support of the bills—and to pledge their support now. 

The first in the package, Cancel Rent, would provide economic relief to universally eliminate rent from March 7, 2020 through the ninety days after the COVID-19 crisis resolves. The organizers (including Housing Justice for All and various tenant unions) claimed Cancel Rent also includes funding for “small landlords, non-profit landlords, and public housing authorities.” The second bill, the Homeless Access Voucher Program, would help homeless citizens acquire stable housing immediately.  And the third, the Good Cause Eviction, would protect tenants from unexpected evictions and sharp rent increases.

The remaining bundle of six bills are designed to raise revenue. These six include taxing inheritances, taxing Wall Street financial transactions, and developing a progressive income tax. In summary, the whole of the nine parts proposed would cancel rent and tax the rich.

Kailee Parker of the Crown Heights Tenant Union offered a testimony to humanize the bills. As a fashion freelancer, she’s been unable to work since the pandemic hit last March, and now claims she’s burdened with $20,000 in rent debt. “It’s necessary to cancel the rent because everybody’s gonna need a fresh start,” she said. “There is no way that we can catch up on a year’s worth of rent based on what a lot of people make.” She sat with her back to a brightly decorated wall, but the notion of “home” faded as she described her domicile as burdensome beyond financial strains: despite a year of pleas, her landlord has refused to fix a leak that stretches and drips through her apartment when it rains. 

Though Zoom may curtail the effects of an eye roll, head nod, finger snap, or abrupt exit, the virtual platform didn’t mute the group temperament of a town hall. And despite who may have been speaking on the screen, the tempo of the gathering’s push and pull occurred in the unbridled chat. After testimonies like Kailee’s, hearts (<3), snaps (++++), and emojis of solidarity flooded the chat room. 

Though the inch-by-inch squares of Zoom are an equalizer—allocating the distressed renter as much screen space as the elected official—the plot of this event, as it unfolded in rising action towards its climax, would prove that the distinction between constituent and representative still held. And like all movements of the virtual town hall, this was detectable in the chat: the pace quickened when the pulse of solidarity was joined by a beat of tension, especially as the town hall entered its final phase—pledges from elected officials. 

Julia Salazar, a state senator whose district includes Williamsburg, Bushwick, Greenpoint and Cypress Hills, promised, “You have my full commitment to continue to fight actively for us to pass all these bills,” and State Senator Jabari Brisport, whose district includes Park Slope, Gowanus, and adjacent neighborhoods, followed suit with, “You can count on me as a fighter in the legislature.” Both statements earned a litany of praise and effusive emojis. But the chat exploded when Assembly Member Charles Barron called for a housing revolution.  His broadside—attacking unreliable representatives, calling for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s impeachment due to the recent COVID-19 nursing-home scandal, and denouncing town hall pledges altogether—began with, “You know I stay in trouble, so I’m gonna get in trouble tonight.” 

Julia Salazar.

But the tempo slowed when Assembly Member Latrice Walker, whose district includes her native Brownsville, began her statement. The audience was waiting for her to clarify her stance. And though she stated her record as an advocate for housing rights, she didn’t pledge to support the nine bills—which the chat didn’t let slip once her statement had concluded. Calls for her explicit support of the bills zipped through the thread—along with calls to protest her. It was then that the power of the chat was evident, as Walker was unmuted once again: “I saw that there was some questions in the chat about me and supporting of a pledge.” 

Walker invited constituents to attend her community advisory board meeting on Saturday. She iterated that she wasn’t opposed, but that her advisory board determined what she supported. “I’m [not] going to support something simply because on the Zoom call folks. . . revert to name calling,” she added. Walker repeated her invitation to her next board meeting, then later said she had to leave for another meeting. Her square disappeared as she exited the town hall. 

All representatives—which also included Assembly Members Phara Souffrant Forrest, Emily Gallagher, Marcela Mitaynes, Diana Richardson, Jo Anne Simon, and Stefani Zinerman—were asked to raise their hands and visibly commit to the pledge. But with nearly a dozen pages of participants, not even a grid view permitted participants to witness all officials pledge their support. The chat demanded a compiled list of pledgers and not-pledgers to be posted into the thread. 

But when the Q&A concluded, the list still hadn’t been posted. And the chat moved to farewells without it. The waving emoji of “hello” was repurposed for “goodbye,” followed by calls to stay strong and keep fighting the fight. And the squares of constituents and representatives alike blinked out of sight. It’ll be when their elected officials are outside the town hall, and before legislatures and committees, that the tenants of Brooklyn will fully see how their representatives pledged to fight for their housing rights.