By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The city’s rent-stabilized renters will be seeing increases of 1.25 percent for one-year leases and 2 percent for two-year leases.
The increases were voted on by the Rent Guidelines Board on Tuesday evening, after two years of rent freezes for one-year leases, frustrating tenants as well as landlords.
Tenant advocates and community groups were pushing for at least another freeze and in many cases a rollback, but owner representatives felt that the increases didn’t go far enough.
Tenant member Harvey Epstein said in his remarks prior to introducing the proposal that ultimately passed that he and Sheila Garcia, the second tenant member on the board, knew tenants needed a rollback or at least a freeze, but he said that neither were possible at this year’s vote.
“It’s our job to do the best we can and live with the political realities,” Epstein said. “We take this job seriously and today is the first day to move to a better system.”
Garcia acknowledge after the vote that she and Epstein could have proposed a zero percent increase during the final vote, since the board is not legally bound by the range passed in the preliminary vote, which did not include a zero percent increase this year. But she noted that she and Epstein picked a proposal based on what they thought would get five votes, and specifically what would get votes from the public members on the board.
“It’s not a good place to be in but this was the best possible outcome,” she said of the vote. “But it’s not what tenants were hoping for so that’s where people’s frustrations come from.”
Epstein added after the vote that the winning proposal was about compromise.
“If we hadn’t proposed that, tenants would have gotten a larger increase,” he said. “(That proposal) saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for low income tenants and that’s our job. Now we have to go back and do better organizing to get our freeze next year.”
While tenants were frustrated that the increases were too high, landlord representatives argued that the increases were actually too low.
“Although a step in the right direction, these increases are totally inadequate for two reasons: they follow two consecutive years of unjustified rent freezes, and they fall far short of the RGB’s own data that the cost of operating a building rose by 6.2 percent in 2017,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association.
Just prior to the vote, new public member Hilary Botein attempted to read a statement put together by herself and fellow public member David Reiss, addressing the hardships tenants face and how stronger legislation could help rent-stabilized tenants.
Botein was only able to get through about half of her statement before chanting from tenants at Baruch College’s Mason Hall drowned her out and she succumbed, allowing Roberts to call for a vote. Tenants got especially frustrated near the beginning of Botein’s statement when she said that tenants who testified at the RGB hearings were not a representative sample of rent-stabilized tenants in the city.
Reiss and Botein’s statement focused mainly on state and municipal action that could address some of the issues mentioned at the RGB hearings, especially since the city likely cannot expect housing assistance from the federal government in the near future, and noted that the RGB itself can’t solve the housing crisis. One suggestion was affordable housing that is pegged to residents’ income, since there is no guarantee that rent-stabilized housing remains “affordable,” which is when housing costs 30 percent of a tenant’s income.
Botein also spoke about preferential rent, noting that it “sounds like a good option for both tenants and owners,” at which point she was drowned out by chanting and jeering completely. But the statement went on to say that preferential rent increases become a threat to tenants’ abilities to stay in their apartments as neighborhoods gentrify, and suggested that preferential rent should be restricted to the tenancy of a particular tenant, which was the law prior to an amendment in 2003, meaning that owners would only be able to increase rents for those tenants no more than the increases approved by the board.
The statement also echoed testimony from tenant advocates on reform for Major Capital Improvements because of landlords that abuse the system.
“We heard allegations of sketchy capital improvement applications that were intended to increase rents without improving conditions in the building,” the statement said. “The state legislature should review how MCIs work in order to ensure that they are properly incentivizing landlords to invest in their buildings to the benefit of both owners and tenants.”
The vote itself, attended by more than 500 people, the majority of whom were vocal tenants and affordable housing advocates, ultimately lasted less time than attendees waited for it to start. The meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. but due to delays related to getting tenants, advocates and other attendees through security, the vote didn’t begin until 8:15 p.m. and was over by 8:45. At one point, tenants played limbo in the auditorium while asking the board, “How low can you go?”