De Blasio Picks Three New RGB Members

Mayor Bill de Blasio has now selected eight of the nine members of the city Rent Guidelines Board, On March 12, he appointed three new members, two public members and an owner representative. The only board member who dates back to the Michael Bloomberg administration now is tenant representative Harvey Epstein.

 The two new public members are Helen Schaub, the health-care workers union Local 1199SEIU’s state policy and legislation director, and K. Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. They replace David Wenk and Carol Shine, Bloomberg holdovers who allied with the landlord bloc to block a rent freeze last year.

The new owner representative is Forest City Ratner executive Scott Walsh. He replaces landlord lawyer Magda Cruz.

Schaub, the mayor’s office said in a statement, “has spent more than ten years as a community organizer with a significant focus on housing.” She will likely be pro-tenant. “More than 70,000 1199SEIU members live in rent-regulated apartments,” Schaub told LaborPress in February, after the 300,000-member union joined the campaign to repeal vacancy decontrol. “For them, the need to renew and strengthen our rent laws is not an abstract, legislative issue. It is a defining issue which determines whether or not they can continue to live in the city where they work to provide care for all New Yorkers.” Another 30,000 Local 1199 members live in Mitchell-Lama housing.

 Rahman’s background is in economic and financial regulatory policy. Before teaching at Brooklyn Law, he was a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Manhattan-based think tank that advocates a 21st-century New Deal. He also advised Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen’s office “on issues including regulating the sharing economy, homelessness, and place-based development.”

He is currently writing a book on the prospects for increasing economic democracy in the United States. “In the years since the financial crisis, the realities of rapid economic recovery for some and stagnant wages for most has made increasingly clear that we live in a new Gilded Age: one marked by growing income inequality, decreasing social mobility, and concentrated corporate power,” he wrote in the Boston Review last fall. “At the same time, we face an increasingly dysfunctional political system, apparently incapable of addressing these fundamental economic challenges.”

Walsh, formerly an architect, is vice president of development at Forest City Ratner Companies and worked at the real-estate firm TF Cornerstone more than 10 years. The Atlantic Yards developer’s owner, Bruce Ratner, has been a longtime supporter of de Blasio’s political campaigns. “At minimum, it helps maintain the relationship between de Blasio and Forest City Ratner,” Norman Oder wrote on his Atlantic Yards Report blog. “Then again, de Blasio might believe that an industry representative with close ties might be more amenable to negotiation, and less likely to speak in ‘tones verging on disgust,’” as Oder described Magda Cruz’s demeanor during last year’s final RGB vote. (The outgoing owner representative called the idea of a rent freeze “radical,” “confiscatory,” and “politically motivated.”)

The replacement of Bloomberg holdovers Wenk and Shine by Schaub and Rahman would seem to make it more likely that the RGB will vote to freeze rents this year. On the other hand, as much as people insist that the board’s decisions are based on the numbers, they carry political implications. Last year, tenants believed that the three public members appointed by de Blasio would join with the two tenant representatives to freeze rents, but it didn’t happen. The mayor had advocated a rent freeze while running, but his administration, particularly Deputy Mayor Glen, indicated it would prefer a small increase. In the end, de Blasio appointee Steven Flax cast the deciding vote to let rents go up by 1 percent. He said he’d been under heavy pressure from both sides, “some of it principled, some of it dirty”—the “dirty” part rumored to be threats by landlords that they’d pull their money from the bank where he works.

The city’s housing costs have continued to rise much faster than renters’ incomes. Some tenant advocates are now pushing for a rent rollback, to compensate for this and for years of RGB increases that often exceeded the amount landlords’ operating costs went up. On the other hand, de Blasio is trying to avoid alienating the real-estate industry, as his plans to create more affordable housing rely on getting it to tithe (or more accurately, triple-tithe) such apartments from luxury development. The real-estate lobby has regularly indicated that it would consider a rent freeze (never mind a rollback) an insult.