By Sabina Mollot
Lawyers for a landlord group were met by an angry crowd of protesters as they arrived in court to argue against a citywide rent freeze Tuesday.
Despite freezing temperatures and snow, the sign-waving group of renters, made up mostly of seniors, led chants that at times called for either a rent freeze or a rollback.
Among their supporters was Council Member Dan Garodnick, who said, “We have seen what happens year after year, even in years when costs went down. Rents only seemed to go in one direction and that was up. As a result, evictions go up. Homelessness goes up. The Rent Guidelines Board acted totally appropriately in making that determination.”
Judge Debra James was hearing arguments from the Rent Stabilization Association, the plaintiff, and those seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, including a coalition of tenant groups, legal service organizations and 18 City Council members.
In the lawsuit, the RSA argued that the Rent Guidelines Board erred by considering tenant affordability in its June 2016 decision to issue a rent freeze for the city’s stabilized tenants signing a one-year lease. Those signing a two-year lease got a two percent increase.
Mitch Posilkin, the RSA’s in-house attorney, said, “Tenant affordability is not something that is set forth in the statute. The language as it relates to the economic determination only references costs inferred by owners that the Rent Guidelines Board is supposed to consider. There is no reference to tenant costs. Zero.”
Tenants, however, disagreed. Following the court appearance on Tuesday, Michael Leonard, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center, which is one of the groups hoping to intervene in the suit on tenants’ behalf, said, “Our argument was that the law allows for the board to take into account tenant affordability and that the legislature intended for the board to have enough power so it could do its job.”
Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers, said 200,000 tenants are taken to Housing Court each year for non-payment.
“Tens of thousands result in evictions, both official and unofficial,” she added. “We have to change that. We need to preserve the rent freeze. It’s the only way we’re going to slow down the evictions.”
Judge James told the court she would issue her decision on March 28.
A tenant activist, Jose Genao of Elmhurst, Queens, with Catholic Migration Services, said, “It’s upsetting that we’re here fighting like they gave us something. We were standing here on cold days. People who have disabilities and elderly came to (RGB) meetings. We fought for this. Where were the LLCs at meetings? The ones who own 20 or 30 buildings. They weren’t there. They’re sitting in their warm offices, sending lawyers to take away what we earned.”
Harvey Epstein, project director of the community development project with the Urban Justice Center, said 20,000 tenants were evicted in 2016 while in the same year, “no landlord lost a building. In 2016, there were no foreclosures.”
The lawsuit had been adjourned from November until now. According to Epstein, the adjournment happened after another landlord group, called SPONY (Small Property Owners of New York), also attempted to intervene in the suit. Epstein is also a tenant member of the nine-member RGB.