By Sabina Mollot
At a typically raucous meeting attended by around 125 tenants, the Rent Guidelines Board made a preliminary vote for a rent increase that ranged from 1-3 percent for tenants signing a one-year lease and 2-4 percent for those signing a two-year lease. The motion for those amounts was made by the board chair Kathleen Roberts who got a 5:4 majority. Both the board’s tenant and owner members opposed it.
Landlord member Mary Serafy had called for a 4 percent increase for one-year leases and 6 percent for two-year leases. Tenant member Sheila Garcia had requested rollbacks for tenants in buildings where owners had raised rent through other means like major capital improvements or individual apartment improvements over the last three years while suggesting ranges of zero to two percent for tenants in other buildings. Like the landlords’ proposal, however, the motion was shot down 7:2.
Serafy had made the argument that market rate tenants, along with landlords, would suffer if there was a third rent freeze, with landlords trying to make up the lost income. She also pointed out that operating costs were up 6.2 percent.
“We believe a third consecutive year with no increase for rent stabilized units will not only be unjustified but also a disaster for a significant amount of landlords,” she said. “It is important that we do the right thing for all.”
Garcia, meanwhile, said landlords still had other ways of hiking the rents like MCIs, IAIs, vacancy bonuses and preferential rents. She also said the median rent for stabilized renters in the city is $1,317 with tenants’ median salary at $43,261.
“Our decision impacts 2.5 million tenants who are just trying to get by,” said Garcia. “Let’s not fall into the rhetoric of modest increases that don’t affect tenants.”
The other tenant member Harvey Epstein added, “I do hear the concerns of owners who are struggling although we haven’t met those owners ever. Owners’ income exceeds their costs. They continuously do better year after year.”
Throughout the event, tenants in the audience demanded a rollback.
Ava Farkas, executive director of the Met Council on Housing, suggested that rents be rolled back by four and eight percent since those are the increases the Rent Stabilization Association, a group representing owners, had previously requested of the board for one and two-year leases.
Along with the heckling that often drowns out the proceedings at preliminary votes of the RGB there was also plenty of singing and chanting by tenants. One chant went, “RGB, hear our plea, time to stop this landlord greed.” Another went, “We’re here for our families, we’re here for our neighbors. Time to tell the landlords, ‘Stop being haters.’”
Only a few people were seated in the section of the room normally occupied by landlords, and remained silent through the proceedings.
Prior to the vote, which was held in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union building, around 70 tenants also gathered for a rally outside. From under their umbrellas they took turns explaining why they didn’t think landlords were entitled to any increase.
Clara Joseph, a tenant leader with the Fifth Avenue Committee, said in her neighborhood Crown Heights gentrification had led to stabilized tenants getting evicted and in some cases ending up in a new transitional housing shelter across the street from her home.
Following the event Al Doyle, one of several members of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association to attend, said he thought it was now important for tenants to testify at the public meetings the RGB will hold across the boroughs until the final vote on June 27.
“I think we have to get out to the public hearings and tell them what’s going on with affordable housing and the prices,” he said. “(Landlords’) income has risen by 11 percent so I think that tells the whole story.” Asked if he was surprised by the preliminary vote figures, Doyle said, “It was almost like an orchestration.”
Meanwhile, landlords too may be unhappy with the proposed increases.
Prior to the preliminary vote, Joseph Strasburg, the president of the RSA, accused the mayor of controlling the RGB, whose members he appointed. Like Serafy, he also said another rent freeze would be bad for tenants.
“The RGB’s position over the past three years is unsustainable – and with this year’s PIOC (price index of operating costs), the RGB will be hard-pressed to vote for another rent freeze,” said Strasburg. “The RGB’s actions over the past three years have punctured a significant economic lifeline of the city’s economy and have been bad for affordable housing and the tenants that de Blasio and the RGB purport to protect.”
Increases voted on will apply to leases signed between October 1, 2017 and September 30, 2018.