Opinion: Five tips to testify effectively for fair rent in front of the RGB

Some of the members of the Rent Guidelines Board, pictured at a hearing last year (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Angela Pham, member, Met Council on Housing

At my day job, I’m a professional storyteller — I use words and stories strategically to get executives to buy something. This kind of persuasion is handy not only in a business context, but also to be heard in other areas.

But you don’t have to be a professional storyteller to see impact. With the upcoming Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) vote, we all have the opportunity to use stories for persuasion.

If you’re a rent-stabilized tenant, or are just an everyday citizen concerned about the lack of affordable housing in our city, you can use your voice for good by providing a 2-minute testimony in one of the upcoming public hearings.

The downtown Manhattan Hearing will be Wednesday, June 14 from 2-8 p.m. at Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House 1 Bowling Green.

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Tenants may get rent freeze

Tenant activists  interrupt the Rent Guidelines Board meeting to demand a rollback. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Tenant activists interrupt the Rent Guidelines Board meeting to demand a rollback. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

After the historic rent freeze for one-year leases the Rent Guidelines Board approved last year, tenants were hoping for another reprieve in the form of a rollback this year, which they didn’t get.

However, the range of possible hikes for the city’s rent-stabilized tenants approved at the preliminary vote on Tuesday evening did leave the possibility of a second rent freeze for one-year leases. After proposals from both the tenant and owner representatives, as well as one from a public member, were voted down, new board chair Kathleen Roberts’s proposal passed for a range of 0 to 2 percent increase for one-year leases and 0.5 to 3.5 percent for two-year leases. The suggested increases are the same range presented at last year’s preliminary vote, a proposal that was also presented by the chair at the time, Rachel Godsil.

The proposal passed 5 to 4 thanks to the votes from the chair and the public members, but both the tenant and owner representatives voted against the ranges.

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Tenants and owners take their case to RGB

Stuyvesant Town residents sit in the audience at the hearing. On the right is Marietta Hawkes, a 38-year resident who gave testimony. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Stuyvesant Town residents sit in the audience at the hearing. On the right is Marietta Hawkes, a 38-year resident who gave testimony. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

With the Rent Guidelines Board set to decide on the rent increases for over one million rent stabilized apartments in the city on June 24, tenants from around the city went before the board on Monday, June 8 to ask for a rent freeze or even a rollback. Numerous landlords, mainly those owning small buildings, also testified to ask for higher rents and even supplemental increases for tenants who remain in their buildings for many years. A few City Council members also chimed in to say their constituents are being priced out of their neighborhoods and in some cases harassed by landlords who want to oust them and deregulate their apartments.

The public hearing, held at CUNY’s Graduate Center on 34th Street was one of four taking place around the city. The next and final one before the vote will take place on June 18 from 5-8 p.m. at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

One of the first speakers was a senior from Stuyvesant Town named Marietta Hawkes, who, after 38 years of living in the complex, is paying 45 percent of her income in rent, including three major capital improvement (MCI) increases.

“Due to these increases, I have had to cut back on food and doctor visits,” said Hawkes. She added that other actions by owner CWCapital have had taken a toll on her heath.

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Why it’s in Cuomo’s best interest politically to strengthen the rent laws

Note: the governor on Saturday made statements indicating he was interested in strengthening the rent laws further than his previous position of simply slightly raising the threshold at which apartments can be deregulated.

With Albany in a state of chaos brought on by allegations of bribery and corruption of two of the infamous three men in a room, the governor has stated that due to said chaos, the rent laws could just be renewed as is or maybe slightly tweaked. For instance, according to a Daily News article this week, he’s suggested raising the $2,500 rent threshold at which a unit can be destabilized by a whopping $200 to $2,700.

A minor change like this seems to be in sharp contrast to four years ago when the rent laws were somewhat strengthened for the first time in 18 years. This strengthening was due, at least in part, to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s influence. Clearly, the man has the power to make a difference if he wants to.

So the question is, does he want to now? It doesn’t really look that way. But hopefully, Cuomo, who is nobody’s fool, will see that with it being out in the open that legislators have essentially been for sale in Albany, it really is time for lawmakers to distance themselves from their deep-pocketed benefactors. After all, this isn’t just about bribery and kickback schemes. There is also the matter of the huge amounts of cash that have been steered to key players, including Cuomo, legally, from real estate interests.

Obviously all these elected officials want to get reelected and having the campaign cash helps, but with the state’s pay-for-play politics finally having been exposed due to ongoing federal investigations, this just isn’t a situation that’s going to be fixed with dollar bills. While we believe Cuomo damaged his credibility irreparably by shutting down his own anti-corruption watchdog panel, with the rent laws, he still has an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of voters. That is, if he can prove that it’s the citizens and not the powers that be he cares about protecting.

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Letters to the Editor, June 4

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Garodnick: How rent laws in current state have been used to raise rents in ST/PCV

The following is an open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo from Council Member Dan Garodnick.

Dear Governor Cuomo:

Many New Yorker City residents are looking to you to help us strengthen the rent laws in the coming weeks. While there are many ways in which these laws need revision, I wanted to point out two areas of the law that have been particularly destructive within Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (ST/PCV) – a community of 25,000 renters, all rent-stabilized, which make up a portion of my Council District.

 The areas of particular concern have been: vacancy decontrol, preferential rents, and Major Capital Improvements (MCIs).

 Vacancy Decontrol: Vacancy decontrol creates some of the most perverse incentives that lay within our rent laws, and it has already done a great deal of damage in ST/PCV.  When the law allows a landlord to jack up rents upon vacancy, there is a very strong push for them to achieve a vacancy – almost at any cost.  In the case of ST/PCV, the property was sold in 2006 to an owner whose entire business plan only penciled out if they pushed rent-stabilized tenants out of their homes, quickly. The result was that tenants were pursued ruthlessly on a variety of bases to get them to leave.

Senate bill S1167 and Assembly bill A1585 would end vacancy decontrol, and would re-regulate many of the units that were deregulated over the last 15 years. I hope you will support it.

Preferential rents: Because of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” case, many tenants in ST/PCV have legal rent-stabilized rents that are thousands of dollars more than the market rate rents for their apartments.  These tenants are paying market rates, but well below what the law allows. The result is that on lease renewal, the landlord is hitting tenants with increases of $250, $500 or even up to $700 per month. Many tenants find themselves suddenly, and without any ability to plan, unable to afford these increases.

There are smart proposals that would give much more certainty to tenants in this position, such as S1775/A5473, which would only allow Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) increases on preferential rents, and keep them from rising to the legal rent until the end of the current occupant’s tenancy.

MCI Reform: I also hope you will support efforts to reform MCIs. MCIs were created so that landlords would have an incentive to improve the property, and to have the ability to recoup their investment. The law today allows them to add the cost of the MCI onto tenants’ rents, and leave it there forever – and long after the investment has been paid for in full by the tenants. S1493/A5373 would make these MCI’s temporary, ensuring that owners are compensated for investing in their properties, but in a way that fair to tenants.

These are only three ways in which our rent laws are broken. I have, however, seen how vacancy decontrol, preferential rents without protections, and MCI loopholes have burdened my own district, and I am certain that your efforts to reform those laws would make a difference. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Daniel R. Garodnick

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Letters to the editor, May 14

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

ST native’s book an exploration of virtues

David Brooks, conservative op-ed columnist for The Times, and a regular commentator on the PBS Newshour and Meet the Press, has just published: The Road to Character (Random House, 2015). Brooks spent his formative years in Stuyvesant Town. He remembers these years with warmth and appreciation.

In his most recent book he speaks about two aspects of our lives: “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues” which can be quite antithetical. The former deals with our accomplishments: wealth, fame and status; the latter deals with our integrity, kindness and bravery and who we are.

The dichotomous relationship of our worldly accomplishments and eulogy virtues both exist, but Mr. Brooks believes that how one is remembered is more important.

This reminds me of two persons here: Mr. Bill Potter, the resident manager of both developments who was very kind to me during my most trying time and others who remember him when he worked here always say the most laudatory things about him.

And then there was MetLife CEO Robert Benmosche who began the decline of our developments from ideal and rare apartments for the middle class to faux luxury and pseudo-upscale units. Benmosche, who recently died, must have made billions of dollars but sans many significant “eulogy values.”

Mr. Potter’s life mainly was left others with memories of his sensitivity and many kindnesses while Mr. Benmosche is now remembered as having made lots of money and lacked the higher spiritual values. And much of his wealth was made from the destruction of PCV/ST.

David Chowes, PCV

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Three new members appointed to RGB

K. Sabeel Rahman

K. Sabeel Rahman

By Sabina Mollot

Last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio named three new members of the nine-member Rent Guidelines Board, which means the entire board is now made up of individuals he’s picked or has re-appointed.

The new faces include one owner member, Steve Walsh, vice president of development at Forest City Ratner Companies, and two public members, Helen Schaub and K. Sabeel Rahman. Schaub is the New York state director of Policy and Legislation at the healthcare workers union, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Rahman is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, who has also taught and serves as a teaching fellow at Harvard Law School and Harvard College. He was also a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he advised Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen on issues including regulating the sharing economy, homelessness and place-based development.

Of the three new members, Rahman was the only one to answer our questions. (Walsh and Schaub did not get back to us.)

When asked what made him want to take on the role of RBG member, which, as is widely known, means being the target of heckling by both tenants and landlords at raucous public hearings, Rahman indicated he was prepared for that aspect of it.

“It’s obviously a really important issue so people are passionate about it as they should be,” he said. “I absolutely think it’s an important issue and I’m happy to help where I can.”

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