By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
What are the board's politics?
While staff research provides the board with empirical, unemotional evidence, in the end the RGB is arguably less blinded by science than pummeled by politics. The assault comes on three levels.
First, the entire debate takes place within the context of what may be the city's most enduring hatefest, the one between landlord and tenant. Landlords argue that government is already overreaching its bounds by regulating their profits, that rent laws are a communist instrument, and that tenants by and large can afford to pay more. Tenants hold that as long as profit-seeking private landlords control the supply of an essential and limited commodity, regulation is a must and is too lax as it is.
Then there's City Hall, which observers say exerts the greatest political influence. Since RGB members are mayoral appointees, most Gracie Mansion residents have not been shy about making their interests known. Under David Dinkins, for instance, the board did not pass an additional "low-rent supplement"also known as the poor taxon cheaper apartments. Giuliani's board reinstated the surcharge. Mayors themselves walk a fine line, trying to avoid making enemies with either tenants, who make up a large voting bloc, or the real estate lobby, a major political contributor.
Giuliani has removed at least three RGB members for political reasons. At the board's final meeting in 1995, public member Jane Stanicki expressed her "dismay and disappointment at the attempted interference of the city administration in the final decisions of this board."
"We are," she proclaimed, "by law an independent body and the efforts of City Hall to get us to do their bidding in my view is a blatant attempt to compromise our freedom." Six months later, the mayor dismissed her. In 1999, he opted not to renew tenant rep Ken Rosenfeld's term after Rosenfeld sued board chair Ed Hochman for failing to release a report on how rents spiraled after the revised rent laws of 1997. In December, Giuliani notified public member Edward Weinstein that his services were no longer needed; Weinstein had complained about the administration's lobbying regarding the 2000 rent hikes.
Finally, there are the politics within the board itself. With four members representing specific constituencies, the five "publics" are the swing voters who can be lobbied. Often, deals are cut around the margins: adding or dropping a percentage point on the rates for stabilized apartments, trying to ditch or retain the poor tax, adopting or avoiding special rules regarding things like sublets or fuel surcharges.
The RGB is more than just statistics and politics. It's theater. For those who suffer through the stultifying early meetings, the last roundssometimes 13-hour marathon sessionsare bursting with action. In one late round in 1990, two landlords donned kangaroo costumes to show the kind of court they consider the board to be. A fistfight broke out between a landlord and a tenant. After a particularly raucous series of RGB hearings held at Brooklyn Borough Hall in 1998, which included a landlord's arrest for attacking a tenant who was filming the proceedings despite the presence of a phalanx of cops, the board was asked not to return the following year. Last year, three senior citizens were arrested after chanting antilandlord slogans. In October, tenants protested the implementation of the board's hikes4 percent for a one-year lease and 6 percent for two yearswith a sleep-out at City Hall.
What to expect this year
Aside from the possibility of marauding marsupials, there are a few things to watch for. First is the unusual situation caused by the fact that two of last year's public membersWeinstein and Justin Macedoniawon't be returning, whittling the public contingent down to three members, which will intensify the lobbying by landlord and tenant members. Giuliani may replace the two by the time the board meets, but it's also possible the seats will remain empty for the bulk of the sessions.
Sources are as yet unwilling to speculate on what rent hike proposals will be put on the table by landlords, or what the final votes might be, but climbing fuel prices and a softening market are expected to influence the mix.
Two bills are pendingone in the City Council and one in the state legislatureto alter the board's composition by replacing the current requirements of five years' experience in housing, finance, or economics with experience in public service or service with a nonprofit; the housing requirement would remain. The state law would have the board consider landlords' profitability and make landlords file annual income and expense reports directly with the board. The city bill would require the council to approve mayoral appointees.
Also this year, look for meetings held outside the RGB's typical Lower Manhattan haunts. One is scheduled for Harlem and several for Brooklyn's Metrotech Center. The board hasn't been banned from the Borough of Churches entirely.
The next RGB meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 10, at Spector Hall, 22 Reade Street, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; the Income and Expense report will be presented. For the full schedule, call the RGB at 212-385-2934. For more information on the RGB and other useful housing-related issues, visit the board's Web site at www.housingnyc.com.