Nine Powerful Men
One thing rent-stabilized tenants know for sure each year: Rents will go up. The question is how much. And the only ones who know the answer to that are the nine members of the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), who set rates each year. The board is not required to increase rentsit can keep them steady or even roll them backbut in practice, hikes are what the board has voted for every year since it began in 1968, orchestrating an annual transfer of millions of dollars from tenants to landlords. It is, in short, an enormously important body.
It is also the exclusive fiefdom of the mayor. While state law dictates that the RGB be composed of two members who represent landlords, two who represent tenants, and five "public" members, selecting them is left solely to the discretion of the mayor, who also appoints the RGB's chair. Now, a City Council bill aims to force the mayor to share power with the council, granting it authority to give advice and consent on RGB appointees.
"These nine people control the fate of millions of New Yorkers," says Manhattan council member Stanley Michels, who introduced the bill on December 19. "Rents are crazy; we have a big problem with vacancy decontrol, and it's not just the responsibility of the mayor but the whole City Council." Fifteen councilmembers have cosigned the bill. No hearings have been scheduled.
Under Rudy Giuliani, the RGB has turned into a businessman's roster, says Kenny Schaeffer of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. Currently, all members, including two holdovers from previous administrations, are men; two are Latino, and the rest are white. Most are lawyers or in finance. "RGB has stood for Rudy Giuliani's Boys for far too long," says Schaeffer.
Public members must have five years' experience in economics or finance. Michels's bill would substitute that requirement with experience in public service or with a nonprofit organization. It would lift a ban that forbids officers of landlord or tenant groups from serving as representatives for either side. And it would bar from the board anyone who owns more than two rental apartments. Now landlords can serve so long as their properties do not fall under rent laws, which cover only certain buildings with six or more units.
The council has advice and consent power over several city commissions, including those governing planning, civil service, landmarks preservation, arts, and the board of health. It had influence over the now defunct Conciliation and Appeals Board (CAB), which settled some rent disputes. Michels says he stopped Ed Koch from appointing two CAB nominees "because they were not tenant representatives but foxes in sheep's clothing. The same is true now of some of the public members. They're giving increases that are not due, and not acting responsibly."
Tenants have been steamed that the RGB has voted for hikes despite landlords' ever growing incomes. Last year, the board approved a 4 percent hike for one-year leases and 6 percent for two-year leases, citing spikes in fuel costs.
Four bills similar to Michels's have been introduced since 1980. Not one has ever come to a vote, and sources blame the landlord lobby. At press time, Council Speaker Peter Vallone had not returned calls, but as a limping mayoral candidate in need of ways to overcome his antitenant past, Vallone may now support the bill. Vallone has questioned whether the council has the authority to insert itself into the RGB appointment process. Michels says the legalities are being researched.
A new coalition of housing, labor, and immigrant rights groups fighting displacement has picked its first battle: a proposed 23-story apartment building to be erected on the corner of Ludlow and Houston streets. While the building would not directly displace anyone, members of the Lower Manhattan Anti-Displacement Coalition say that estimated rents of about $5000 for a two-bedroom apartment would give landlords incentive to get neighborhood tenants and businesses out.
The coalition is urging the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) to reject a developer's request for permission to build a tower four stories taller than zoning allows. Now, Edison Properties, the parking-lot company that owns the corner, could build 19 stories. Edison insists it must build four more to make the project pay.
In December, the BSA asked Edison to revise parts of its plan and consider if "secondary displacement" is indeed a problem. A BSA hearing is scheduled for January 23.
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