As a tenants’ rights attorney in rapidly gentrifying Buffalo, Adam Bojak has built his career fighting to preserve affordable housing and opportunity for the city’s many poor and low-income residents. This year, he’s taking his fight to Albany. With backing from the National Democratic Socialists of America, as well as the organization’s Buffalo chapter, Bojak is waging a campaign to against the state’s austerity politics - the consequences of which have become only too clear during COVID. He talked with The Forge about the challenges of campaigning during COVID, his vision for a more equitable city, and how he’s preparing for the “avalanche of evictions” he fears are coming without state intervention. 

This interview was recorded at the very beginning of the mass uprisings to defund the police. It has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. 


How did you get involved in politics and what made you decide to run?

The 2008 crash was my political awakening. At the very least, to realize that there were some things that were not right with the world, with the country. That was when I started to move leftward. Then [in] 2015, when the primary for president was starting to ramp up and I started to hear about the Democratic Socialists, that was another huge formative moment in my politics. Before that, I didn't understand that you had to be invested and doing something all the time. I was that person who showed up every four years and I thought that was enough. Never paid attention to local stuff, never paid attention to primaries. 2016 was a huge wake up call telling me that I had to get involved and do more.

That was when I joined Buffalo DSA [and] started to work with them. I was on the Steering Committee for a year and did a lot of work with the electoral campaign [committee]. We endorsed Cynthia Nixon and I led the efforts for that for our chapter. Through DSA, I met a lot of great local organizers and activists and non-profit people that have been doing an amazing job across this whole area.

What are the main issues you're fighting for in your community?

The main things I started with and things have certainly drastically changed since February, but the main things were: We believe that every person deserves a safe and stable home. We are 100% signed on to a homes guarantee for every single resident in New York. We are against mass incarceration, [for] the bail reform that just got rolled back. That was a huge disappointment. In the middle of the night, when they were passing a huge budget that also cut $400 million from Medicaid, billions over a few years.

The austerity has to stop. We have to tax the rich people because they are hoarding wealth on purpose and then our public programs and services are being defunded over and over and over again, and we can't take it anymore. Now, we're seeing the results of that nationwide. When austerity takes hold, people lose things that they rely on and their communities are faced with disinvestment. Their communities are looted for profit for decades. We have to make sure that the state is taking care of its citizens. We should have the New York Health Act passed, we should have bail reform, we should have the defunding of the police. We have to rethink the way we do everything in this state pretty much.

How have your priorities been reshaped by the pandemic?

One of the biggest issues in Buffalo is housing. Almost 60% of the people in this city rent, and we are also one of the poorest cities in the country. We have the oldest housing stock in the country, and so there's all these layers and layers of poverty being exacerbated and then we have wages that have been stagnant for decades. There's this huge renaissance here in Buffalo because all the developers are getting huge tax breaks to redevelop buildings. None of that is trickling down because trickle down economics doesn't work. People are being left behind in the Buffalo renaissance.

I do a lot of work with tenants because I believe that everybody should have an attorney at all times.  I've seen firsthand the awful, awful circumstances that people are faced with when the landlord buys the house from a previous owner and increases the rent hundreds of dollars, and then they can't afford that but they can't find a new place because everything else has been gentrified and they can't afford to stay in the neighborhood. They can't find anything else in their price range. 

The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act that passed last year did a lot for downstate people, but a lot of the provisions in that bill only helped people that lived in the five boroughs. Outside of those five boroughs, we still have optional rent control, and so the municipalities have to opt into that. The moment it passed, people around Buffalo, our elected officials were saying, "Yeah, we don't need rent control around here," which is a phenomenally tone deaf and ignorant thing to say faced with housing difficulties that we have here. What happened when COVID-19 shut everything down is it laid all those issues bare. Something like 40% of the jobs that have been lost are not coming back and they didn't cancel rent, they haven't canceled mortgages.

They are trying to put a band-aid on this gaping wound that millions of people are afflicted with statewide. We're going to see an absolute barrage, an avalanche of eviction filings once courts reopen, and they're scheduled to be reopened pretty soon. We're going to see landlords go after their tenants, and it's people that have lost jobs in this worldwide crisis of proportion we've never seen before.

At the state level, we have to do better. The only thing they've done so far is moving this bill that will pretty much subsidize landlords but it's still not enough. It's not canceling the rent; it's kicking the can down the road. We're screaming as loud as we can to make sure elected officials know that their inaction is not going to be acceptable on this. The measures that they're passing now are means tested, so it's not going to take care of every tenant that hasn't been able to pay their rent. None of the things they're doing are addressing the root causes. That was the big downside of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act that passed last year: It didn't address the root causes of evictions, it made them take a little bit longer, which is good because it does stabilize people when they're trying to get extra time to find a new apartment if they know they can't stay where they are, but they still have to move in the end because nothing was there for them, there was no support.

What's been the biggest challenge for your campaign since COVID? 

Yeah, it's been such a whirlwind trying to figure things out because we were so excited to get out there and knock on doors. We had a lot of volunteers. Back when we did petitioning to get signatures, we had dozens of people going out and we knew that they were all ready to come back and do it again. And all of a sudden, we can't canvas and it definitely pulled the rug out from underneath us in many ways. One of the things I have been doing is almost daily YouTube, Facebook Live videos. A way to do a bit of a news roundup, let people know what's going on and then how it relates to our campaign. We've been doing some phone banking, Citizen Action, one of the groups that endorsed us, has been doing text banking as well. They are putting together a candidates panel for us and the other two candidates. I've done a couple town halls which had decent attendance. We're always fundraising, getting our lawn signs on people's lawns, getting mailers in the mail to people that we can't reach by phone. All those different tactics.

Phone banking is tough. We do it and we call the people. If you do get somebody the chances of them being interested in what you're saying are much lower than they would be if you were at their door. Having done a bunch of canvassing myself on other campaigns and even when I was petitioning, when you go to somebody's door they're much more receptive to anything you might have to say than calling them. It's also tough because generally [the] best times to call are when you know they're at home, which is also when they're going to be doing other things.

Are you seeing people becoming more politicized as well?

I do, I do. The only problem I see is that people are being more politicized in a time where it's going to be more difficult for them to exercise their political voice. I mean, technically, if you're a registered voter you can get a mail-in ballot, but you still have to fill out the application and then take the step. It's all voter suppression. 

The political context has also shifted so dramatically since the beginning of March.

Yes, the ripple effects from... Not even ripple effects but the splash of Coronavirus and the things that it has completely upended and the possibilities that it has erased, we'll never fully comprehend. It's certainly true here, locally, like I was saying about not being able to knock on doors. I'm not saying that we're obviously an underdog, I would never say we're guaranteed to lose now because we are doing a lot of work and we're making a lot of headway, but I think without being able to knock on doors and hold public events like we had been planning, we got kneecapped really badly, we really did. Then when one candidate has the party machine backing and the committee members. When they make phone calls, they make them for the entire slate of candidates. If they call somebody, they're telling them about five or six different people, whereas our volunteers are doing it for me and it's tougher.

How has engaging volunteers been going?

It's up and down. You'll get waves of enthusiasm and then naturally it'll peter out for a variety of reasons. There's some people who will make phone calls over and over and over again and then there's a lot of them once or maybe twice and then not again. That's it, you have to continue to keep putting the information out there and asking for people. It is an uphill battle everyday. We’ve been doing jitsi calls. It’s a really good way for people to be able to see each other on the screen and they can chat with each other about the calls. It's also a really good way to hold each other accountable. 

What digital strategies are you using? 

Social media has a huge influence right now. Our Facebook Live videos, as well as making sure that we're putting some sort of content out there as much as possible. Then we linked up with other downstate DSA candidates by Twitter and they give us signal boosts and I give them signal boosts and that certainly helps too because they have a really great team down there and they've been doing this for longer than we have up in Buffalo. When they get something rolling, it rolls pretty well and it rolls quickly. I think the day that I was endorsed by the National DSA, they boosted our signal and the donations rolled in two days in a row. It was great.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I'm very reserved about where we're going from here. Things are reopening, but I'm worried they might be reopening too quickly. I'm expecting to see a spike in cases after the Memorial Day weekend, and then if the protests continue, I have no idea. It might change the complexion of everything because that has the capability of being the only issue that really matters. We have this big wide platform that covers all these great areas and all of a sudden we'll be focusing on one thing. That could very well be what happens in this race, and we have to be prepared to handle everything that happens. I'm planning on writing up a statement to release today to say that we have to defund the police. I don't believe either of the other candidates are willing to do that. I can't imagine the guy endorsed by the party and machine is going to go that far out on a limb. The other guy's a former police officer so I don't expect that from him either. I think we need to let the people know where we stand on it and make it completely unequivocal.



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