By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The Rent Guidelines Board approved 1.5 and 2.5 percent increases for rent-stabilized tenants in the board’s final vote at Cooper Union’s Great Hall last Tuesday evening. The event attracted the usual crowd of chanting tenants, most calling for a rent freeze at the vote and pre-event rally and some even hoping for a rollback, but the increases proposed by RGB chair Kathleen Roberts passed in a narrow 5 to 4 vote.
While the annual vote usually ends with a proposal that is a compromise between high increases from the board’s landlord representatives and low increases, or often a rent freeze, from the tenant representatives, a public member voted differently than members in the same position have in the past.
Rodrigo Camarena, who Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed this year, voted with the tenant representatives for a rent freeze while the other public members, as well as the owner members and the chair, voted against the measure.
“For the vulnerable, for the displaced, for fairness, I vote yes,” Camarena said when casting his vote.
In another surprising departure, new owner member Angela Pinsky voted against the chair’s proposal, while the other owner member, Scott Walsh, and all the public members except Camarena voted for the increases that ended up passing.
While tenant organizers argued that anything above a freeze was too high, Pinksy argued that the increases that passed were too low. Pinksy defended her vote to reporters following the meeting, saying that she and Walsh had pushed for a higher increase than the final proposal, although Walsh ultimately voted for the measure that passed.
“We want to keep it high enough to incentivize landlords to have their buildings in good repair,” Pinksy explained. “We don’t want the landlords to sell or redevelop the land. We’re looking for a number that will encourage owners to maintain their buildings.”
Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 owners, echoed Pinksy’s argument that owners need the increases for building repairs and maintenance.
“Landlords of rent-stabilized apartments cannot repair, maintain and re-invest in their quality affordable housing, and pay their ever-increasing taxes, when de Blasio has a stranglehold on their primary source of income,” Strasburg said following the vote. “We don’t need to look further than New York City’s public housing to see the results of inadequate resources and financial neglect.”
Tenant representative Leah Goodridge, who is also a new member of the board this year, said that she was surprised by Camarena’s vote for the rent freeze.
“It was pretty historic that a public member pulled away and voted for the freeze,” she said. “The majority of public members usually vote for the chair’s proposal.”
Although the preliminary vote in April did not include a rent freeze, with a range of 0.75 to 2.75 for one-year leases and 1.75 to 3.75 for two-year leases, tenant representative Sheila Garcia said beforehand that she and Goodridge were planning to push for a freeze anyway.
“That’s what tenants deserve,” Garcia said. “It’s still possible. Some people are even demanding a rollback this year.”
Regardless of the range, Garcia was optimistic before the vote that the increases wouldn’t be exorbitantly high because the range from the preliminary vote was at least smaller than it has been in the past.
Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, who was previously on the other side of the table as a tenant representative on the board for the last few years, encouraged tenants at the meeting to vote in local elections, especially since the rent laws are expiring next year. He noted that a 10-bill package passed the Assembly this year, including reforms for Major Capital Improvements, preferential rent and vacancy bonuses, but as usual, the legislation didn’t pass the State Senate.
Despite this, Epstein said that he’s optimistic.
“We’re only one or two votes away from flipping the Senate and being able to pass some of these bills,” he said. “We’ll know by November where we’re at.”