The Rent Guidelines Board will open its 1999 season next Tuesday, beginning its annual ritual of setting rent-hike rates for 2.4 million rent-stabilized tenants. But this year, the RGB has an additional, and unusual, task: finding a place to hold its public hearings and final vote typically disputatious affairs that got so out of hand last year at Brooklyn Borough Hall that the board is not welcome back.
Citing overcrowding and "safety considerations," Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden has deemed it "inappropriate" to reconvene the board in the 151-year-old hall's stately courtroom. Golden cited the hall's 165-person capacity as the reason it cannot accommodate the RGB, but sources say the problem is not so much the crowd, as crowd control. "They just don't want the board to come back," says a source. "It got kind of raucous."
Indeed, at several public sessions last summer, RGB chair Ed Hochman repeatedly asked police to eject a tenant who heckled board members, and a landlord was arrested after attacking a person who was filming the proceedings for a tenant group. "Let's put it this way," says board member Edward Weinstein, "I felt like the proverbial fire hydrant in the midst of a pack of dogs."
RGB sessions are famously cantankerous, but last year became especially rough after Hochman refused to release a staff report about how changes in state laws had affected regulated rents. Hochman said the report was faulty because it relied on old data; two board members sued, arguing that the chair was acting unilaterally. Tenant groups worried that Hochman was suppressing data that would show huge rent hikes. In the end, Hochman released the original report along with another one based on more current data, which showed average hikes of 12 percent with spikes of up to 21 percent in Manhattan, and thousands of apartments deregulated because rents exceeded $2000.
Such a tempest is unlikely this year because the board is expected to undertake only its mandated studies (last year's controversial report was optional), which measure various features of the regulated rental market including mortgage rates, landlords' income and expenses, tenant affordability, and a consumer price index for owners. Although at its last session of 1998, the board voted unanimously to meet during the winter to discuss optional studies, the meeting was never called.
"We never met, and there will be no optional study this year, and I think it's maybe a way of avoiding controversial studies," said Ken Rosenfeld, one of two RGB members who represent tenants and who sued to release the study. Rosenfeld added that a staff shortage is a factor, since former executive director Doug Hillstrom left in March. Hochman did not return calls for this story.
At its first meeting on April 13, RGB staff will present its first study of the year, a survey of mortgage rates for multiple-dwelling buildings. A series of six meetings will follow; by June 30, the RGB must set rent rates, which go into effect on October 1. While most of the meetings are scheduled for Spector Hall at 22 Reade Street, a venue for the final vote is still being sought.
Last year, the board passed hikes of 2 percent for one-year leases and 4 percent for two-year leases. Predicting the rates for 1999 is dangerous and remember that the board is free to allow no increase or even a rollback but several RGB members are not anticipating big jumps. Rosenfeld expects that landlords' costs are down and that rent rates should follow. Even landlord representative Vince Castellano sees no "dramatic numbers. Absent any shock to the system, imposed either by government or nature, we'll probably end up at 2 and 4 percent again."
Castellano wants to continue his efforts from last year to substantially hike the base rent a landlord can charge for apartments that go from being rent-controlled to rent-stabilized. The board sets such a base annually, but last year, at Castellano's urging, it adopted the highest minimum ever, $650. This year, Castellano wants to set minimum rents for one-bedroom apartments at $650, two-bedrooms at $850, and three-bedrooms at $1050.
"It's problematic because there are very few low-rent apartments left, and for many tenants, these are the only affordable housing resources left in the rent-regulated stock," says Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing.
Even if Castellano's plan leads to a skirmish, it's unlikley to produce the rancor that marked last year. At least, most members hope it won't. Asked if he is looking forward to the start of the RGB season, tenant representative David Pagan replied, "You never look forward to bad medicine. But at the same time you know you have to deal with it for your health in the long run. You just have to do it."
Pearl Street Redux
Tenants of 76 Pearl Street, the loft building from which two renters disappeared after a November 1997 dispute with their landlord over heat, face new troubles with a new landlord. In February, Pearl St. Holding LLC bought the building from Robert Rodriguez; two weeks ago, managing member Robert Gaver sent tenant Kim Magistro a notice that she must leave her loft by April 30. Last week, tenants added the new landlord to a harassment complaint they had filed against Rodriguez at the Loft Board.
The tenants, who have been on rent strike since July, allege that the new owner has not provided adequate heat or repaired water damage, and has entered the apartment of missing tenants Michael Sullivan and Camden Sylvia without consent of a subtenant. Gaver's attorney, Jack Lepper, said he had not seen the harassment complaint, but insisted that heat was adequate. He said the owner wants Magistro's apartment back; Magistro argues that she is entitled to stay.
If Magistro is forced out, the only remaining occupants would be long-term renters Chuck and Sara DeLaney and the subtenant, a friend of the missing Sullivan. (Last month, the second-floor tenant, a friend of Rodriguez, vacated her apartment.) DeLaney says the new owners have been elusive and pushy. "If you buy a building that had this kind of a shadow over it, you think you'd come in and try to be kind of neutral," he says. "Instead, they've been incredibly aggressive."
Rodriguez has been the focus of police investigation into the fate of Sylvia and Sullivan, though he has not been charged in the case. Since January, he has been jailed on charges of larceny, forgery, and tax fraud, including charges that he assumed the identity of a dead man to get credit cards.
Last week, the Daily News reported that police have moved the investigation from homicide to the 1st Precinct, a sign that discouraged the missing couple's neighbors. They met last week with the Manhattan D.A.'s office, which DeLaney described as "quite focused on this case."
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