By Assemblymember Harvey Epstein
Before I became a state legislator, I was one of two tenant representatives on New York City’s Rent Guidelines Board, the entity responsible for setting the rents for the city’s million-plus units of regulated housing stock. During my tenure, I worked closely with advocates to push through two consecutive rent freezes––the first and second in the Board’s 50-year history.
Freezing rents for two years in a row provided much-needed relief for over a million rent-stabilized tenants––relief these working class New Yorkers still need today. Unfortunately, since 2016, the Board has voted twice to raise rents; they look poised to do so again this year. I don’t believe the data support increasing rents.
New York City is in the midst of a homelessness crisis of historic proportions not seen since the Great Depression. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, our city is home to the largest homeless population of any city in America: tonight, some 60,000 New Yorkers will sleep in shelters.
Those lucky enough to have a home face challenges: in an annual report produced by the RGB, a majority of rent-stabilized tenants were shown to be rent-burdened and a third are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay 50 percent or more of their incomes towards rent. Rent-burdened tenants face serious difficulties meeting their everyday needs for nutritious food, healthcare and education and the health outcomes of children that live in rent-burdened households are worse than their non-rent-burdened counterparts, according to Pew researchers.
Landlords face no similar hardships. To the contrary: their rising profits coincide with an economic climate that favors their interests. RGB reports show that mortgage interest rates fell, debt service fees are down, the cost to run a building has fallen 20 percent since 2005 and vacancy and collection losses decreased to the lowest level ever recorded in the Mortgage Survey Report. In short, now is a good time to be a landlord in New York, where the total market value for Class 2 properties, which includes rental apartment buildings, climbed to $329.9 billion citywide. These data show how urgently tenants need a rent freeze and how comfortably landlords could withstand one.
The homelessness crisis and the shortage of affordable housing are inextricably linked. Our city’s rent-stabilized housing stock is a bulwark against homelessness that we must preserve at all costs. Raising rents would put over a million tenants at risk of not being able to afford the staples of life but a rent freeze, on the other hand, would create a measure of protection tenants badly need without causing adverse effects for the vast majority of landlords.
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein represents the 74th Assembly District, which includes Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, Murray Hill, the East Village and the Lower East Side.