By Maria Rocha-Buschel
On Thursday night, the city’s rent-stabilized tenants learned that their rents would be going up 4 percent on one-year leases and 7.75 percent on two-year leases.
The hikes are significantly higher than last year’s, 2 and 4 percent for one and two-year leases, respectively, though the Rent Guidelines Board Board’s preliminary votes could have allowed for increases as high as 9.5 percent for two-year leases.
As they do every year for the RGB vote, tenants came out to the meeting in full-force, often shouting over the two owner members on the board who wanted to implement the maximum increases.
Jimmy McMillan, of the “Rent is Too Damn High” party and mutton-chop fame, was one of the few people who stayed outside during the meeting, but that didn’t make him any less dedicated to the cause.
“I’m gonna do my next video butt naked. All my clothes money went to rent,” he said after learning about the results of the final vote.
One of the two tenant members, Harvey Epstein, offered the first proposal of the meeting, calling for a rent freeze. “Tenants are struggling. Unemployment and eviction continue to rise. It’s a direct contrast as the net operating income of landlords continues to grow,” he said. “Landlords can apply for hardship increases and not one landlord applied in 2012. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of tenants applied for DRIE and SCRIE benefits. Many tenants came and gave testimony saying that they have to make the decision between paying rent and paying expenses.”
As the board voted to reject the proposal, audience members yelled out in reference to the board’s public
members, “You don’t represent us at all! This is a farce!”
Owner member Steven Schleider proposed a 6.25 percent increase for one-year leases and a 9.5 percent increase for two-year leases, as well as a 5 percent vacancy allowance and a 10 percent sublet allowance. Epstein voted a vehement “absolutely not.” In defense of the proposal, Schleider said that housing in the city is “generally affordable,” which was greeted by yelling and boos from the tenants.
“Tenant subsidies are available through SCRIE and DRIE,” Schleider continued, attempting to talk over the crowd’s jeering. “No board member denies that tenants are struggling (…) but we don’t have the power to address it. Operating costs are understated and buildings are more expensive to operate every year. The vast majority of landlords need the increases.”
Tenant member Brian Cheigh then submitted a second proposal, countering with a 3.25 percent increase for one-year leases and a five percent increase for two-year leases. All the members except Cheigh voted against this proposal and the owners didn’t submit a second proposal after this. RGB Chair Jonathan Kimmel then submitted the proposal that finally passed with a vote of five to four.
“This vote impacts diverse households and these decision affect large sections of the city,” Kimmel said before the vote amid supportive cheers from owners and shouts of “RGB has got to go!” from tenants. “Many people will feel that the board has failed them but there are new costs that directly impact owners’ wallets. The public members try to balance the needs of the owners and the tenants.”
Epstein made a last appeal to the other board members before the final vote, saying that the proposed increases were well beyond what most rent stabilized tenants could pay. “Unemployment is still at nine percent,” he said. “With rent increases like this, it might as well be our job to evict low income tenants. We had public hearings and heard testimony from (rent stabilized tenants) but what we’re saying is that even though tenants came, their voices weren’t heard. Please vote no.”
Although the vote did not swing in the tenants’ favor, local elected officials and advocates are continuing to work towards changes in the system. Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and State Senator Daniel Squadron are co-sponsoring legislation that would change the way the RGB members are appointed.
The legislation was passed in the Assembly earlier this week and is now pending in the Senate. If passed, it would ensure more scrutiny of the board members’ qualifications by requiring the advice and consent of City Council for all the appointees, who are chosen by the mayor. It would also expand the range of individuals who could be considered for appointment to include those who have experience with urban planning, public service, philanthropy, social sciences, architecture and social services.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who supports the legislation, was disappointed in the vote’s results. “The Rent Guidelines Board had an opportunity to protect tenants, an opportunity the Board squandered when they chose to subject New Yorkers to disruptive rent hikes instead,” she said. “The board must schedule hearings in all five boroughs next year and offer all New Yorkers an opportunity to stand up for the future of rent stabilized housing in New York City.”