Editorial: RGB desperately in need of reform

Last Thursday night, a mixed crowd of tenants, tenant advocates and even a few landlords wearily took part in a dreaded tradition that each and every party in attendance understood was a complete sham.

As tenant reps begged, as they do each year, for a rent freeze, citing the economy and job market, owner reps asked for rent increases that few people’s annual raises (assuming they even get them) could possibly match. And as for the so-called “public” reps of the Rent Guidelines Board, they did what they do every time they vote for what over a million New Yorkers’ rent increases are going to be: nothing at all.

For years, both tenants and landlords have griped that the RGB system is broken. Tenants in particular have had no confidence in the board since its members are all picked by Mayor Bloomberg.
There is legislation, that if passed, would reform the RGB by giving the City Council more oversight in making sure those appointed to the board are actually qualified to make the decisions that they do (and not just vote the way the mayor would).

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, said it passed the Assembly on Friday, just before the session ended for summer. This is not surprising, but what will be a surprise if it can make its way through the State Senate, where tenant-friendly legislation typically goes to die. This is unfortunate, since that legislation may be the best hope for the stabilized renters in this city, who’ve seen a rent increase every single time there’s been a vote.

Additionally, for the past several years at least, the June vote, which is the final event after a series of public hearings and meeting at which countless tenants, owners and advocates give testimony on why rent increases are either a disastrous idea or a necessary one, the evening plays out the same way each time. The two tenant reps propose a freeze, eventually hoping to negotiate by offering up percentage figures on the low side. The two owner reps usually propose increases around 10 percent, and then the board chair picks a number somewhere in between and the other four public members vote with him, giving that amount the majority vote.

In April, when the preliminary vote took place, RGB Chair Jonathan Kimmel insisted that the votes are not, as critics charge, decided beforehand. But this is pretty difficult to believe when the process is always carried out the same way, and in the same hurried manner too as if the RGB members feel they have better things to do than get heckled by tenants who fear getting priced out of the city.

While he wasn’t betting the bill would be given the blessing of the Senate this year, Kavanagh said progressive issues, such as this one, are now being pushed hard in Albany and RGB reform in particular is one of the top priorities of tenant advocates.

“The City Council having a say would be quite significant,” he said. “We don’t know if any of the current members believe there should be rent stabilization at all. If we had a hearing where (prospective board members) could explain why they want to sit on the board, we’d have a very different kind of process.”