By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
The Rent Guidelines Board is the bureaucratic equivalent of a sports car: It accelerates from a snooze to a nightmare in only eight meetings. Beginning, as it did this week, with a stream of statistics that measure the enormity of the city's housing crisis, the RGB toils in virtual obscurity through the spring and then suddenly bursts into action, which sometimes includes fisticuffs.
No wonder. The board's job is to "adjust" the rents of the city's 1 million stabilized apartments, which means dipping into the pockets of more than 2 million tenants. Even the tiniest hike translates into a major economic transfer: A 1 percent jump, for instance, sends more than $72 million from the hands of tenants into the accounts of landlords.
Most New Yorkers know only the end result of the RGB's annual ritual, since the media tend to ignore the board until its last, roiling meetings, which culminate in a late-June vote on rent hikes. Rife with politics, deadened with statistics, and peppered with enmity, the RGB can baffle even seasoned observers. To the landlords and tenants who must abide by the board's rule, it's a minor mystery. Who are these guys? (The current board is indeed all male.) How'd they get the job? Why is no one ever happy with them?
Here's a primer on the RGBthe lowdown on why your rent is going up.
What is the RGB?
The RGB is a nine-member board established in 1969 to set guidelines for rents on stabilized apartments. Its members are appointed by the mayor. Two represent landlords. Two represent tenants. The remaining five are called "public" members who serve as swing votes to be won over by landlord or tenant members. A chairperson from among the public members serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Terms for other members vary, and there are commonly "holdovers" who sit long after their terms expire, unless they do something to peeve a subsequent mayor. One current member, landlord rep Harold Lubell, was appointed by Ed Koch; public member Agustin Rivera was appointed by David Dinkins. The remaining members were named by Rudy Giuliani.
While the RGB's main job is setting rates for stabilized apartments, it is also responsible for rent rates in lofts and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels. It often exercises its option to impose an additional monthly surcharge on low-rent stabilized apartments, and to give landlords a hike for stabilized apartments when they become vacant.
RGB members must have at least five years' experience in finance, economics, or housing. They may not own or manage buildings covered by the rent stabilization law. No member of any tenant or landlord group can serve. Appointment to the board is considered more of a burden than an honor: The $100 per diem compensation has not increased since 1969, making it one of the lowest-paying boards in the city. Outrage expressed by landlords and tenants alike at meetings, says one former member, makes the board feel "like a hydrant surrounded by a pack of dogs."
How does the board set rents?
How much did lightbulbs cost last year? Toilet seats? Pine disinfectant? Those are among the questions the RGB asks when determining how to adjust rents; while under no obligation to actually raise rentsthe board could freeze themthat is what it has always done. The board also takes into consideration, among other things, how much landlords pay for insurance, mortgages, and labor; what tenants earn and pay for rent, how many get evicted, and how tight the housing market is.
By law, the board must consider cost-of-living factors and the economic conditions of the residential real estate industry. Its staff produces five reports each year, beginning in the spring. Experts present additional information and public hearings are scheduled; this year there will be seven meetings before a final vote on rate hikes, which must be formally adopted by June 30. The hikes apply to renewal leases beginning the following Octobers; three-year leases were discontinued in 1984.
The staff reports that form the heart of the RGB's research are: