By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Ahead of the Rent Guidelines Board’s first meeting of the year, tenant advocates called for a rent rollback at a forum hosted by Council Member Corey Johnson at PS 3 in Greenwich Village last Wednesday evening attended by about 100 area residents, most of whom were rent stabilized tenants.
Attorney Tim Collins, who also represents the ST-PCV Tenants Association, is the former executive director of the RGB from 1987 to 1993 and he argued that putting a stop to increases for rent stabilized tenants is long overdue.
“Last year I didn’t ask for a rent freeze; I pushed for a rollback then,” Collins said. “The numbers are clear. The board has clear data on where operating costs have gone. We know that operating costs have gone up faster than inflation at 144 percent but landlords have been given 177 percent in increases since 1990. The RGB has overcompensated owners.”
Johnson, who represents Manhattan’s District 3, periodically hosts “Let’s Talk” events for community residents to inform New Yorkers about issues important to them. He won’t be hosting any other events on the RGB this year, but he said that this event was scheduled specifically to be on the night before the board’s first meeting of the year.
“It’s important that New Yorkers understand what is going on and the massive reforms that need to happen,” he said. “And we want to make sure that the RGB is treating tenants fairly.”
In addition to Collins, other advocates and tenant organizers on the panel included Met Council on Housing program director Ilana Maier, Alliance for Tenant Power campaign manager Delsenia Glover and RGB tenant representative Sheila Garcia, who were all on hand to offer basic background information on the function and operations of the board, as well as answer questions about the process, which culminates in the board’s final vote at the end of June.
Johnson asked the panel for an overview on the way the board functions as well as how the board is appointed. Collins explained that the RGB was created as an attempt to level the playing field for tenants but it ultimately creates an advantage for owners and increases property value, especially when there is a housing shortage.
“Whenever the vacancy rates are below five percent, landlords would have undue bargaining leverage,” he said.
Collins added that the vacancy rate was eight to 10 percent from 2009 to 2013 and while rents decreased throughout the country, they continued to increase in New York.
“It’s an outrageous and unequivocal rip-off,” Collins said. “We’re getting closer to deregulation. The democratic system in Albany is broken. Your system of democracy is not working.”
Garcia noted that the makeup of the board is the two tenant and two owner members, as well as the five public members who have a background in finance, law, housing and the environment with at least five years of experience.
“The public members aren’t supposed to be biased but I don’t think that’s always the case,” Glover added.
Johnson also noted that there is also a proposal to change the way that members are appointed to the board. Currently, all members are appointed at the discretion of the mayor, whereas appointments to city commissions require nominations from the mayor as well as city council hearings and a vote.
“With the RGB, there’s no check on it,” he said. “There’s a proposal to bring the RGB in line with the rest of the City Council approval process.”
Johnson also asked the panel to discuss the role of Albany in the Rent Guidelines Board.
Other parts of the state have seen rent freezes, Johnson noted, and he posed the question to the panel on why this has never been the case in New York. Maier pointed out that none of the lawmakers in Albany who vote on legislation that affects rent stabilized tenants don’t actually have any rent stabilized tenants in their districts and as a result, often don’t vote in their favor. The closest this board has come to voting for a rent freeze was last year, when the members voted 5 to 4 in favor of a 1 percent increase on one-year leases and a 2.75 percent increase on two-year leases, which seemed difficult for Garcia to relive.
“A lot of feelings come back when thinking about that day,” she said after a long pause. “I felt like I was holding it and someone took it.”
The panel members also encouraged residents to get involved with the process before the actual vote.
Glover noted that the public hearings will be happening in June but encouraged residents to connect with a tenant advocacy organization because DHCR does not send out information about this opportunity to speak before the board.
“DHCR has the names and addresses of every rent stabilized tenant so why not send out a notice?” she asked. “Unfortunately, it comes down to people like us to notify everyone.”
Collins added that the best route for public testimony to the board is to keep it short and connect it to personal experience.
“The most effective thing to do is to let them know that their decisions have a human consequence,” he said.
The panel especially encouraged tenants to get involved through trips to Albany to encourage lawmakers to pass more tenant-friendly legislation.
“You need to get up in Albany and raise hell,” Collins said. “I would like to see 50,000 people overwhelm Albany. This is the stuff we fought a revolution over. This board is only serving the interests of a small number of very wealthy people.”