RGB Hears Tenants’ Silent Action

After the Rent Guidelines Board’s landlord representatives complained they had been unable to present their rent-increase proposal at its preliminary vote April 26 because tenants were chanting loudly, the board’s leadership considered measures to clamp down on protests. 

RGB Chair Kathleen A. Roberts and owner representative Scott Walsh expressed concern about tenants’ “loud chants,” “interrupting members who are speaking,” “use of instruments,” and “other disruptive behaviors” at the April meeting, when the board rejected a proposed rent freeze. In the weeks afterwards, Roberts advocated more rigorous entry searches, having more police officers or security guards present, and banning chants and drums. (The RGB started requiring people to pass through metal detectors to get into meetings in 2007, the year after tenants brought percussion instruments to its final vote.) 

The Rent Justice Coalition argued that such measures would chill tenants’ First Amendment rights to express their frustration and anger about the city’s housing crisis, and inhibit them from testifying at RGB hearings. A 1983 court decision backed them up: In Matter of Muriel Towers Co., the Supreme Court of New York County held that the “circus atmosphere” created by the exercise of constitutional rights by a “vocal citizenry” at an RGB meeting did not prevent rational deliberations by the board. 

When the issue of security came up at the RGB’s next public meeting, on May 24, Rent Justice Coalition members put masking tape over their mouths, stood up, and held signs reading, “We Are Not Confrontational Hostile Uncivil Unstable. We Are Human Beings.” “Democracy is a nasty business,” tenant representative Leah Goodridge said during the board’s discussion of a possible “code of conduct.” 

The RGB agreed to no restrictions on tenants‘ speech and expression, except for the usual two-minute time limit for testimony at public hearings. 

“Our brilliant silence was heard!” Wasim Lone of Good Old Lower East Side exclaimed afterwards.