By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Only a few hours before it was scheduled to meet last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed four new members to the Rent Guidelines Board, which is responsible for setting the rent on about one million rent-regulated apartments throughout the city.
Mayor de Blasio appointed two public members, a tenant representative and an owner representative. He also reappointed tenant representative Harvey Epstein. The chair’s seat has not yet been appointed and four other seats on the board will open up at the end of this year.
The board is comprised of nine members, all of whom are appointed by the mayor, making it one of the few tools he has to directly influence the cost of housing. There are two landlord representatives, two tenant representatives and five public members, one of which includes the chair.
Cecilia Joza and Steven Flax were appointed as the two new public members. Joza is currently the housing counseling program director at Mutual Housing Association of New York, a not-for-profit housing organization that owns and manages over 1,200 affordable rental apartments in New York. She facilitates and conducts home purchases for first-time homeowners and offers foreclosure and predatory lending prevention counseling.
Flax has been involved in promoting community-based housing and development for the last few decades. He is currently a vice president of community reinvestment at M&T Bank and oversees community development lending.
De Blasio also appointed Sheila Garcia as a tenant representative. Garcia is currently the community organizer at CASA New Settlement, a not-for-profit, mixed-income housing and community-service organization the Bronx, where she works with community residents to improve living conditions and maintain affordable housing.
Sara Williams Willard, who works at Hudson Companies as a senior project manager running the company’s activities on Roosevelt Island, was appointed as an owner representative, replacing Steven Schleider, who often appeared unfazed by the booing at public meetings that would drown out his calls for maximum rent increases.
The mayor also reappointed Harvey Epstein, who has been on the board since last April and called for a rent freeze before the board’s vote last June. Epstein is project director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center and represents member organizations in litigating housing, health and consumer matters. Several years ago he ran a hotline for tenants that was mostly called by Stuyvesant Town residents who were facing primary residence challenges.
Tenant advocates have responded positively to the new appointments, hoping that the new members will help sway the vote towards a rent freeze, which was also a campaign promise of then-public advocate de Blasio.
“These appointments can be the first step for the mayor to give some relief to tenants, who got pummeled by big increases last year,” Garodnick said. “I hope this board will deliver that relief.”
Michael McKee, the treasurer of TenantsPAC, said that he thought that de Blasio’s appointments were “excellent.”
“He’s chosen new people who seem to understand, based on their performance at the meeting last week, that the job of the board is to keep rent affordable,” McKee said. “Under Bloomberg, they seemed to think that their job was to protect landlords’ profits. We’re waiting to see who he’ll appoint as chair, but so far the appointments are good. It was like a new board and a new day.”
Susan Steinberg, chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, indicated that she was cautiously optimistic.
“While the devil is in the details and I would prefer to reserve my judgment for the actual vote on rent increases this summer, I am encouraged by the fact that the new appointees for the most part seem to have solid background in community development and affordable housing and would, presumably, understand the challenges faced by rent-burdened tenants of moderate means,” said Steinberg.
“I am keeping my fingers crossed for a very modest increase in June.”
By Maria Rocha-Buschel