By Albert Samaha
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Mayor Rudy Giuliani is forcing tenants to bear the brunt of a political skirmish by taking their most seasoned advocate off the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). On April 8, the mayor notified Ken Rosenfeld that his term on the board would not be renewed. Rosenfeld was one of two tenant representatives; he had served since 1993. The RGB, a board of nine mayoral appointees, sets rent-hike rates for 2.4 million rent-stabilized tenants and establishes some guidelines for rent-controlled apartments and single-room occupancy hotels.
Citing only the fact that Rosenfeld's term officially expired in 1993, Giuliani wrote that he had named a successor for the spot. But while Rosenfeld is indeed a "holdover," having been appointed by David Dinkins, so are two other RGB members, including a landlord representative appointed by Ed Koch. But only Rosenfeld, a legal services attorney and ardent tenant advocate, was deemed in need of replacement.
"I think it's an insult to the tenant community, and that it was intended as that," says Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. Rosenfeld himself notes that Giuliani could have removed him at any time since he became mayor. "But to have me replaced just days before the start of this year's season is inappropriate," says Rosenfeld; the board began its schedule of annual meetings on April 13. "And the fact that tenant groups were not consulted in any way shows that once more, the mayor has ignored constituencies with his megalomaniacal tendencies."
City Hall spokesperson Curt Ritter did not answer questions about why Rosenfeld was bounced or why his replacement, corporate lawyer Jeffrey R. Coleman, was selected. But sources say it's clear that Rosenfeld's dismissal is largely the fruit of his bitter battle last year with RGB chair and Giuliani appointee Ed Hochman over a study of how changes to the state laws affected city rents. Hochman refused to release the report because he said it used dated information; Rosenfeld, along with the other RGB tenant member, David Pagan, sued to make the report public.
Rosenfeld argued that Hochman was suppressing the study in part to spare Governor George Pataki political embarrassment, since Pataki had orchestrated the revision of the laws and it was suspected that the study had found skyrocketing rents. Hochman finally released both the original report and another one based on more current data, which showed average rent hikes of 12 percent and spikes of up to 21 percent in Manhattan.
Hochman did not return calls for this story; nor did he comment for New York Post City Hall columnist David Seifman, who reported last week that Hochman's tenure is itself in doubt because of a running dispute with housing commissioner Richard Roberts, whose agency pays for some of the RGB's costs and who has been wrangling with Hochman for months over board finances.
Coleman, 39, says he got the job because he applied to City Hall "generally for a position" on a city board; the RGB spot was offered. A registered Republican, Coleman has not contributed money to Giuliani's campaigns; neither has Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, the white-shoe law firm where Coleman is of counsel, specializing in antitrust issues, securities, and financial fraud. Coleman says the firm "has zero to do" with his RGB role.
By his own admission, Coleman is not an activist, "but I am a rent-stabilized tenant" on the Upper East Side and, as a lawyer, "I'm paid to advocate. I look forward to being an aggressive advocate for tenants. I'm a strong sup-
porter of rent stabilization laws to protect the middle class and poor people."
While tenant leaders are discouraged over Rosenfeld's dismissal, several met Coleman last week and say they expect he'll serve well. "I'm very pleased," said Laurie, who was at the meeting. "For the short amount of time he's been on the board, he's absorbed a tremendous amount of information and is already up to speed on important issues for tenants. He understands what the RGB research is and what the arguments are."
Tenants might focus on Coleman because he is new and because Rosenfeld was something of an icon on the RGB, but the power votes lie with the five "public" members who are supposed to balance the interests of the tenant and landlord reps on the board. All five public members are Giuliani appointees and, says Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, the mayor "has tilted those members in favor of landlords." Among the public members, tenants see Hochman and Ed Weinstein as generally antagonistic and Dinkins appointee Augie Rivera takes his lead from Hochman. Relative newcomer Bart Carmody is regarded as fair to both sides, and Justin Macedonia, appointed at the tail end of last year's board meetings, has said little so far and is, McKee says, "a mystery."
Even Joe Strasburg, president of the city's most powerful landlord lobby, says the "public members are the key mayoral appointees. As for the new tenant member, City Hall doesn't really care what his position is, so long as they have their five votes."
On April 13, the RGB staff presented the first of five market studies meant to help the board set rent-hike rates, which found that mortgages are at their lowest since the RGB began following them 17 years ago. Coleman says that finding suggests that, "to the extent that mortgage rates are a significant factor," last year's rent hikes of 2 percent for a one-year lease and 4 percent for a two-year lease "were too high." At press time, an April 27 meeting was scheduled, when board members would receive staff studies on landlords' incomes and expenses, and on tenants' income and affordability.