Tenants may get rent freeze

Tenant activists  interrupt the Rent Guidelines Board meeting to demand a rollback. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Tenant activists interrupt the Rent Guidelines Board meeting to demand a rollback. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

After the historic rent freeze for one-year leases the Rent Guidelines Board approved last year, tenants were hoping for another reprieve in the form of a rollback this year, which they didn’t get.

However, the range of possible hikes for the city’s rent-stabilized tenants approved at the preliminary vote on Tuesday evening did leave the possibility of a second rent freeze for one-year leases. After proposals from both the tenant and owner representatives, as well as one from a public member, were voted down, new board chair Kathleen Roberts’s proposal passed for a range of 0 to 2 percent increase for one-year leases and 0.5 to 3.5 percent for two-year leases. The suggested increases are the same range presented at last year’s preliminary vote, a proposal that was also presented by the chair at the time, Rachel Godsil.

The proposal passed 5 to 4 thanks to the votes from the chair and the public members, but both the tenant and owner representatives voted against the ranges.

Prior to the vote, tenant advocates were emphatic that the data presented to the board supported their request for a rollback.

“The data supports (a rollback) even more this year,” said Larry Wood, a community organizer for Goddard Riverside. “The price index was negative this year, partially due to the mild winter. But we’d be happy with a rent freeze, part two.”

Tenant representative Harvey Epstein was also confident prior to the vote that the data supported a rent rollback but said that he was hoping for at least a rent freeze as well.

Similar to last year’s preliminary vote, the tenant representatives, who presented their suggestions first this year, offered a proposal with a range of -4 to zero for one-year leases and -2 percent to 0 for two-year leases.

“Tenants are severely rent burdened,” said tenant representative Sheila Garcia. “If there are landlords in hardship, there are applications they can fill out. There have been no foreclosures in recent years and there haven’t been any landlords who can’t afford their mortgages.”

The crowd became restless following the vote on the tenant representative’s proposal and held up the proceedings for a number of minutes, coming towards the stage and chanting, “Shame! Shame!” and demanding that those voting against the proposal explain their opposition. The owner representatives presented their proposal once tenants returned to their seats, although hissing from the audience and occasional outbursts interrupted their explanations.

Owner member Scott Walsh argued that the data available to the board leaves too many questions unanswered.

“This is a forward-looking decision but the latest data we have is from 2014,” he said. “We need to consider historical trends. Net operating income does not equal profit.”

New owner member Mary Serafy had to offer the owner representative’s proposal twice to be heard over the booing from tenants, and the 4 percent increase for one-year leases, plus a 6.75 percent increase for two-year leases, was voted down by all of the members of the board aside from the owner reps.

“If landlords are in hardship, they can show us. It’s with data and numbers, not testimony that’s just like, ‘we’re struggling,’” Garcia said in response to the owner’s proposal.

“If landlords feel like they’re being punished, they should sit on the other side for 46 years.”

Public member Cecilia Joza, the only member of the board aside from the tenant representatives who voted in favor of a rollback, presented her own proposal offering a zero to 1 percent increase on one-year leases and a zero to 2 percent increase on two-year leases. Garcia said that she appreciated Joza’s willingness to compromise and encouraged other members of the board to vote for the proposal because it included the possibility of a rent freeze, but the vote did not pass, prompting the final proposal from the chair.

“I appreciate the zero but the ranges are too high,” said Epstein, explaining why he voted against the chair’s proposal. “This is well beyond what it should be. The price index was negative this year. Cecilia’s proposal was at least a lower range but this doesn’t reflect the data.”

The final vote will take place at the Great Hall in Cooper Union on June 27, prior to which there will be a number of public hearings throughout the city for both tenants and landlords to testify.

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