Rent-Controlled Tenants Demand End to MBR System

Charging that the rent-control system hits tenants with bigger annual increases than rent stabilization, about 30 people protested outside a state hearing on the Maximum Base Rent factor Nov. 10.

“We’re subject to seven and a half percent increases every year,” said Robert Amsterdam, 80, one of the few rent-controlled tenants left in his Upper West Side building. “We’re not getting seven and a half percent Social Security increases.”

“I’m on a fixed income,” said another demonstrator, a retired teacher. “I just want to be able to stay where I am.” She’s lived in the same Upper West Side building almost all her life, she said, and raised her children there, but between the annual increases, major-capital-improvement increases, and almost $200 in fuel pass-along charges, her rent has surpassed $2,000 a month.

She’s taken in a roommate, but it’s still eating away at her savings.

The state department of Homes and Community Renewal has proposed that the MBR factor be 7.8 percent for 2012-13. That would mean a 7.8 percent increase in the MBR, the maximum legal rent for a rent-controlled apartment. Landlords are allowed to raise the rent on an apartment by 7.5 percent a year—the “maximum collectible rent”—until it reaches the MBR. The increases affect the about 39,000 apartments that are still under rent control, all of which have been occupied by the same household since 1971.

“It’s arcane and complicated, even to HCR staff,” Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) told the agency’s seven-member panel. She urged them not to increase the MBR.

Tenant groups are backing three bills to reform the system. One, sponsored by Rosenthal and state Senator Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan), would have the city Rent Guidelines Board set increases for rent-controlled tenants. “The fact that we prefer the RGB to the MBR shows how wildly problematic the system is,” Maggie Russell-Ciardi of Tenants & Neighbors told the demonstrators. The RGB has not voted a one-year increase of 7.5 percent or more since 1981.

Another bill, from Rosenthal and Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), would eliminate fuel pass-alongs. The third, from Assemblymember Jonathan Bing (D-Manhattan) and Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Queens), would exclude Social Security payments from being counted as income by the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program. Many tenants complain that they can’t afford to pay their rent, but that Social Security pushes their income over SCRIE’s $29,000 maximum.

“There is no way that seniors on fixed incomes can keep up,” Rosenthal said. “The plight of the rent-controlled tenant is not that Woody Allen pays $62 a month for a ten-room apartment on Central Park West. That is a myth.”

Rent-controlled tenants, who are almost all elderly, are “prime targets for harassment,” she added. “The landlord sees cash money when he kicks them out.” And HCR does not have the resources to audit whether fuel pass-alongs and MCI increases are valid, she told the agency panel.

The 7.5 percent annual increases might have been a reasonable ceiling in the high inflation of the early 1970s, Greenwich Village tenant Lucy Levy told the panel, but they’re excessive now. If the 7.8 percent MBR increase is approved, she said, her rent will go over $2,000, and she already spends more than half her salary on it.

According to HCR figures, the MBR has increased almost sevenfold since 1974. Rents under RGB guidelines, Levy said, have increased about fivefold.

The three bills got out of the Assembly Housing Committee this year, but were overshadowed by the struggle to renew rent stabilization, Rosenthal said. They will have to be reintroduced next year. As for their prospects in the Senate, historically the graveyard of pro-tenant measures, she said she hoped that some legislators “might look at it a little differently,” because of the age of the majority of the people affected.