Freeze is for 1-year leases, 2% hike for 2 years
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Tenant advocates didn’t get the rent rollback they were hoping for but the Rent Guidelines Board did offer some relief with a freeze for one-year leases in their vote at Cooper Union’s Great Hall this past Monday night. Tenants signing two year leases will be getting a two-percent increase as a result of the vote.
The proposal, which Board Chair Kathleen Roberts presented after motions from both the tenant and landlord representatives failed, passed with a vote of 7-0, with the two owner representatives abstaining. The two percent increase and the freeze is the same proposal that passed at last year’s vote.
Prior to offering a proposal, owner representative Scott Walsh acknowledged the significance of the housing crisis in New York but suggested that there were other solutions, like rent credits for tenants paying more than half of their income in rent and the expansion of rent subsidy programs.
Walsh got the approval of the crowd, rare for an owner representative on the board, at the suggestion of increasing the income threshold on SCRIE and DRIE to $72,000 for two-person households and $63,000 for one-person households, but he was drowned out again by the yelling of protesters when he ultimately offered a proposal to increase one-year leases by three percent and two-year leases by five percent.
“This attempts to balance the needs of landlords and tenants,” he said. “Rent stabilization is not an official affordable housing program. Owners still need to account for costs.”
After the landlord representatives’ proposal was voted down 7-2, tenant representatives Harvey Epstein and Sheila Garcia countered with a rollback, proposing a -4 percent increase for one-year leases and a -2 percent increase for two-year leases. This motion also failed by a vote a 7-2, prompting Roberts to offer her proposal that fell in between the increases offered by the tenant and owner reps.
“The Rent Guidelines Board remains as long as a competitive market exists,” Roberts said in explanation of her proposal. “There is no easily applied formula to calculate adjustments. We have to consider sewer and water rates, the economic conditions, real estate tax and operating costs. There have been dramatic increases and record low vacancy rates but owners of small buildings are still struggling.”
Roberts said that she didn’t think an “unprecedented rollback” was appropriate solely because the most recent price index was negative and she said that a rollback would affect the ability of small owners to operate.
“I considered and rejected a larger increase,” Roberts added. “But the most recent housing and vacancy survey found that half of rent stabilized tenants pay 36.4 percent of their income in rent and are considered rent burdened, when owners sometimes have several other sources of income.”
Before filing into the Great Hall for the vote, tenant advocates were pushing hard for a rent rollback, but many were not fully disappointed by the freeze for one-year leases. In light of the historic freeze last year, Epstein was more enthusiastic then about the proposal but this year pushed back harder against the two percent increase for two-year leases.
“Two percent isn’t mirrored by the data,” he said before casting his vote. “We’ve heard that people are struggling and this doesn’t acknowledge the struggles that New Yorkers face every day. I’m concerned that two percent is too high.”
Garcia added that the testimony from the hundreds of tenants who appeared at the public hearings prior to the vote played an important role in the board’s decisions.
“It does feel like we’re in a different space now,” she said. “You have to continue to have your voices heard.”
STPCV TA chair Susan Steinberg wasn’t surprised there was no rollback but she also felt that the increase for two-year leases was too steep.
“I bet there aren’t many Stuyvesant Town residents whose income increases by two percent and there are probably people who pay 50 percent of their income in rent but (the freeze) is an accomplishment,” she said.
Among those pushing for a rollback was City Councilmember and Peter Cooper Village resident Dan Garodnick.
“There was ample evidence for the Rent Guidelines Board to deliver not only a freeze, but a roll-back for tenants this year,” he said. “That said, I hope this signals the end of the era where landlords got enormous increases year after year, and where tenants never caught a break.”
Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh said that he was also frustrated there wasn’t a rollback but noted that it was encouraging to have a rent freeze for two years in a row. “We have to keep the pressure on in Albany and strengthen the rent laws,” he said. “It is an accomplishment that this is the new standard for this Rent Guidelines Board.”
Former STPCV TA chair Al Doyle said that while he was hoping for a rollback, he wasn’t shocked by the ultimate result, but he was pleasantly surprised by the discourse among the members of the board.
“I was surprised about the difference between the tenant representatives and the chair compared to previous years,” Doyle said. “In years past, there was never any public discussion, so I’m encouraged that there’s more of a dialogue now.”