Tenants packed the Cooper Union auditorium on Monday for a brief vote that resulted in a historic rent freeze. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The Rent Guidelines Board voted for a rent freeze for the first time since the board was established in 1969 on Monday night. However, the historic freeze is only a partial victory for tenants since it applies only to one-year leases. Two-year leases will see a two percent increase.
This was the first year that all nine members of the board were appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who last year echoed tenant calls for a rent freeze. This year he refrained from making any comments on the rollback advocated for by tenants, although he praised the board’s decision following the vote.
“This was the right call,” de Blasio said. “We know tenants have been forced to make painful choices that pitted ever-rising rent against necessities like groceries, childcare and medical bills. Today’s decision means relief.”
Despite the jubilant atmosphere in the auditorium of the Cooper Union directly following the vote, some tenant advocates felt that a freeze only on one-year leases was not far enough.
“I knew they wouldn’t vote for zero and zero but in my mind, a rent freeze isn’t zero and two,” TenantsPAC treasurer Mike McKee said. “Anyone who just signed a two-year lease (before the vote) won’t get a chance to take advantage of the zero percent increase. The fix was in as usual. The tenant members realized they couldn’t get anything better so they just settled for what passed.”
ST-PCV Tenants Association members attended the vote, including new president Susan Steinberg.
Susan Steinberg, who was elected as the new president for the STPCV Tenants Association last week, was also cautiously optimistic.
“It’s a partial victory,” she said. “It was certainly historic. Tenants will breathe easier tonight, but I just wish the increase for the two-year leases was a little less.”
Marietta Hawkes, a 38-year resident of Stuyvesant Town, was more disappointed by Albany’s failure to strengthen the rent laws than she was excited about the rent freeze.
“It’s the MCIs that really kill us,” she said. “I’ll never vote for Cuomo again. He and (Assembly Speaker Carl) Heastie are not sticking up for tenants.”
Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh was enthusiastic about the vote, noting that the increase for two-year leases shouldn’t belittle the achievement of a zero percent increase on one-year leases.
“It’s a great victory for tenants,” Kavanagh said. “We had a tough setback last week. We fight these battles on many fronts and we’ll continue to fight for affordable housing in Stuyvesant Town and all over the city. It’s a big thing that tenants can renew their leases with no increases. I think it’s fair to say that we got a rent freeze.”
Tenant representatives Harvey Epstein and Sheila Garcia had originally proposed a rollback of up to -4 and -2 percent for one and two-year leases at the preliminary vote in April. RGB Chair Rachel Godsil had rejected that proposal, saying that there were landlords also struggling, but she also rejected the owner’s suggested increases of up to 4.2 and 6.7 percent.
Epstein and Garcia, who offered their proposal first on Monday night, seemed resigned that their final proposal of zero percent for one-year leases and two percent for two-year leases was the best they were going to get for the moment.
Tenants at the rally call for a rollback.
“The data supports a rent rollback but we don’t have the votes to make that happen tonight so I am proposing what I think is the best option,” Garcia said. “Think about what kind of city we want to live in.”
Tenants initially jeered at the proposal, reacting to the two percent increases for two-year leases. Epstein himself had criticized Godsil’s proposal at the preliminary vote that called for up to 3.5 percent increases for two-year leases, but in response to the negative reaction of the crowd at the final vote, explained that while it wasn’t what they had been hoping for, it was a small step in the right direction.
“Tonight let’s realize this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “Today we have the opportunity to have a historic rent freeze. There have been 46 years of landlords getting increases, of not following their responsibilities. We take a stand that a zero is a huge victory. If we don’t get a rollback, a freeze is a start so we’ll be back next year to get what we want.”
When asked to cast her vote, owner member Sara Williams Willard called the entire process “biased” and “myopic” before voting “absolutely resounding no.”
The mood in the auditorium was triumphant after six of the nine members cast “yes” votes, with tenants almost drowning out Godsil when it became clear that the vote was in favor of the tenant representatives’ proposal. Godsil called for a lull in the cheers long enough so she could provide an explanation for her affirmative vote.
“The majority of owners are faring well but half of rent stabilized tenants are considered to be rent burdened,” she said. “Rent stabilized housing remains unaffordable for majority of tenants living in these units. Increasing rent burdens lead to increasing numbers of people who can’t stay in their apartment while owners have several other sources of income. In light of this year’s current data, a zero percent increase is appropriate. The two percent increase is to protect owners for costs that may arise. We need a careful balance.”
The Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, was less enthusiastic about the vote. RSA President Joseph Strasburg criticized the decision, saying that the board was pandering to the mayor’s political agenda at the expense of tenants.
“It is despicable that politics prevailed over common sense. There is no basis for a rent freeze. Previous mayors let this independent board do what was necessary to preserve the city’s largest source of affordable housing,” Strasburg said. “Ironically, de Blasio’s mantra has been the preservation of affordable housing, but his support of a rent freeze, coupled with last year’s one percent rent increase, will have the opposite effect, spurring the deterioration and eventual eradication of affordable housing.”
The vote itself was surprisingly short, lasting only half an hour and only requiring the board members to vote once because the first proposal presented was the one that passed. Despite the quick vote, the meeting didn’t start until 7 p.m., an hour after the scheduled time. McKee theorized that this was because the board members were negotiating on a deal, although a representative from the RGB said that the delay was to ensure that everyone who wanted to get in had a chance to see the vote.
The event, attended by about 900 tenants, took place at the Great Hall as it typically does but due to construction taking place at the entrance of the building, the usual place for pre-vote demonstrations was relocated to a too-small spot on Cooper Square next to Bahr Che wine bar, resulting in the group spilling over into the street and cops having to nudge tenants back towards the sidewalk to keep them out of oncoming traffic.