RGB shoots down rent rollback

Tenants in front of the CUNY graduate center before the vote on Wednesday evening. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Tenants in front of the CUNY graduate center before the vote on Wednesday evening. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Rent freeze still a possibility for one-year leases

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Tenants hoping for the possibility of a rent rollback this year were disappointed at the Rent Guidelines Board preliminary vote last night, despite the possibility of a rent freeze for one-year leases. The de Blasio-appointed board approved a range that will be voted on at the end of June, from zero to two percent for one-year leases and from 0.5 to 3.5 percent for two-year leases.

The nine-member board faced the passionate crowd at CUNY’s Proshansky Auditorium in Midtown for the vote, which was preceded by a tenant rally in Herald Square a block away.

Owner representatives Sara Williams Willard and new RGB member Scott Walsh presented their proposal first, suggesting a 4.2 increase for one year leases and a 6.7 percent increase for two year leases.

“Fuel went down 21 percent, but that is fuel prices. Every other category went up. I’m uncomfortable hanging my hat on the PIOC as reflective of owner expenses,” Willard said, referencing the Price Index of Operating Costs study released by the RGB this month, which found that costs increased 0.5 percent, a 13-year low. “When you don’t have revenue grow in lock step with expenses, the numbers go down into the negatives.”

Tenant representative Harvey Epstein encouraged the public members to vote down the proposal and chair Rachel Godsil agreed that the increases were not “in any way warranted,” casting a vote against the proposal.

“The tenant burden is the highest ever recorded. We want owners to be insured that they have costs covered but according to the Projected Increase of Owner’s Costs, fuel prices went down dramatically and this is important to think about,” she said. “We want what is a fair proposal to cover owner costs but the increase proposal from the owner members is in no way consistent with any of the data.”

Epstein then argued the case for the proposal from the tenant representatives, which suggested -4 percent to zero percent for one-year leases and -2 to zero percent for two-year leases. He argued that while wages have seen a small increase, tenants need a chance to catch up, adding that homelessness and evictions have increased as well.

“New York is growing,” he said. “The question is what will it look like in 10 years? Who is this New York going to be for?”

While Godsil agreed with Epstein’s dismissal of the owner’s proposal, she disagreed with the tenants’ own proposal, saying that tenants are not the only ones struggling.

“The idea that all owners are rolling in money, it’s just not the case,” she said, although when an audience member shouted out that those owners also aren’t homeless, she acknowledged the point, responding, “You’re right sir, they’re not.”

But she continued with her proposal that was ultimately passed, offering up to a 3.5 percent increase for two-year leases. When Epstein questioned the rationale behind what he thought were unreasonably high increases on the two-year leases, Godsil said that it came down to the uncertainty in the next two years, in addition to the expected increase in costs.

Expectations for either a rent rollback or freeze are especially high this year, but the emphasis was on a rollback from tenant advocates.

At last year’s preliminary vote, tenant representatives Harvey Epstein and Sheila Garcia both supported the chair’s range. Epstein said at the time that he was reluctant to vote in favor of it but was encouraged because of the possibility of a rent freeze. This year, both he and Garcia voted against the chair’s proposal.

“The range is well beyond the data and I encourage all the public members to vote this down and find something closer,” Epstein said before the votes for the chair’s proposal were cast. “This is beyond what is reasonable.”

Tenants were also discouraged by the range in the chair’s proposal. Godsil’s rejection of the owners’ initial proposal was met with conversation-stopping cheers from the audience, but discussion was halted for longer with chants of “Shut it down!” after the final proposal was approved.

STPCV Tenants Association chair Susan Steinberg said prior to the vote that she wasn’t really expecting a rollback but was at least hoping for a freeze. Steinberg said following the vote that she was still disappointed even with the possibility of a rent freeze, adding that any other thoughts she had were “not really printable.”

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