Rent Guidelines Board Resists a Rollback but Grants a Freeze

Tenants rally outside last night's Rent Guidelines Board meeting in Cooper Square.
Tenants rally outside last night's Rent Guidelines Board meeting in Cooper Square.
Rebecca Nathanson

Despite an ambitious proposal to give the 1.6 million tenants living in rent-stabilized apartments a rent rollback, the city’s Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) instead voted last night to freeze rents for one-year leases and raise rents for two-year leases by 2 percent, mirroring last year’s decision. Frustrated cries of “Two percent is too much!” filled Cooper Union’s Great Hall.

The Board held five public meetings leading up to last night’s vote. At each one, tenants lined up to share stories of neglectful landlords and rents that had risen so high that they were forced to choose between housing and food.

“That zero percent only affected those signing their leases within a period. So we’re asking for a rent rollback so that all tenants will benefit,” says Donna Mossman, a Crown Heights tenant of thirty-eight years and a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union. “Plus,” she added, “we need the relief.”

According to a report from the RGB, operating costs for landlords went down by 1.2 percent this year and their net operating income grew by 3.5 percent in 2014, the most recent year with available data.

When explaining why she voted against the rent rollback proposal and in favor of the 2 percent increase for two-year leases, RGB chair Kathleen A. Roberts described that cost decrease as “aberrational.”

But as Mossman explains, “Nobody’s salary has gone up. So what are we supposed to do? I mean, everything is going up around us except for our salaries.”

In a statement praising last night's outcome, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the decision "reflects what’s actually happening in our neighborhoods."

The Rent Guidelines Board, which votes on rent adjustments for rent-stabilized apartments every year, is the city’s only means of influencing rent policy. Everything else is up to New York State, thanks to the 1971 Urstadt Law that took away New York City’s ability to determine its own rent laws. Chief among these policies is vacancy decontrol, which allows rent-stabilized apartments to be destabilized once the rent reaches a certain threshold. Last summer, after a prolonged struggle that saw tenants bussing up to Albany for sit-ins, the state government voted to increase that threshold from $2,500 to $2,700/month.

There are over 1 million rent-stabilized apartments throughout New York City, representing 47 percent of the total housing stock. The RGB sets their yearly rent change, but there is a whole host of other reasons why these million-plus tenants might see their rent increase, even with a renewed rent freeze.

The first is a vacancy allowance, which lets landlords increase the rent between tenants. Right now, that allowance is 20 percent for units with two-year leases and slightly less for those with one-year leases. Vacancy bonuses, for when long-term tenants of at least eight years leave, provide another mechanism for raising rents. And when landlords make improvements to either individual units or entire buildings, the laws allow them yet another increase. All these factors help rents creep up to the decontrol threshold, at which point they are no longer subject to regulations and landlords can raise their rent to market value. The rent freeze does nothing to prevent this. Moreover, for rent-stabilized tenants with two-year leases, the freeze is nonexistent.

For Lucia Muniz, a member of the Flatbush Tenant Coalition who has lived in her Ditmas Park apartment for seven years, rising rents are the reason she has not yet left her current home. With mold, leaks, mice, a daughter with asthma, and a landlord who has not addressed any of her concerns, she is anxious to find a new place. “This building is really bad. When I say that, I really mean it. Trust me,” she says. “I’m working and my husband is working and even with two salaries, we can’t afford to live in a different place.”

She calls last year’s rent freeze “a huge victory,” one that allowed her to pay her bills and better support her children. But last night, she was looking for more. Would she also consider this year’s freeze a victory? “We want a rollback in the rent. And we’re going to keep fighting until we get it.”

Angela Pham, a volunteer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing’s Tenants’ Rights Telephone Hotline, has heard countless tales like Muniz’s. “You hear so many of these stories over time, you start to really understand that there’s a very big problem here,” Pham says. “The day that the landlords have to have their own help hotline, I’ll believe that they shouldn’t have a rollback this year.”

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