RGB Proposes 1-Year Rent Freeze

The Rent Guidelines Board is proposing a one-year rent freeze for the city’s 900,000-odd rent-stabilized apartments.

At its preliminary-guidelines meeting May 7, conducted on Zoom online-meeting software instead of in person, the board voted 5-4 to recommend that no increase be allowed for one-year lease renewals that begin in the year starting Oct. 1. For two-year renewals, the rent would be frozen for the first year and go up 1 percent in the second year. RGB chair David Reiss also included a vacancy increase in his proposal—1 percent on the second year of a new tenant’s two-year lease—but did not mention it when he introduced the motion for it.

If approved by the RGB at its final meeting in June, those guidelines would be the third rent freeze of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s seven years in office, and the lowest total increases allowed since rent stabilization began on 1969. The rent freezes of 2015-16 and 2016-17 only covered one-year leases; they allowed 2 percent increases for two-year renewals.

As usual, the vote was 5-4, with the public members voting yes without any discussion, the owner representatives saying the proposed increase wasn’t high enough, and the tenant representatives objecting that it was too much.

“We shouldn’t be increasing rents on vacancies,” tenant representative Sheila Garcia said. “We shouldn’t continue to exacerbate the tale of two cities.”

To people in the more affluent of those two cities, she continued, a 1 percent increase “might seem like nothing,” but for others, that amount of money “means food for their kids. It means no school shoes. It means a lot to people making minimum wage.”

The other tenant representative, Mobilization for Justice housing lawyer Leah Goodridge, praised the board for freezing rents, but said allowing any vacancy increase would set a bad precedent.

Several times in the past year, Mayor de Blasio and city housing officials such as Deputy Mayor Vicki Been had dropped hints that landlords should get bigger rent increases than the 1.5 and 2.5 percent hikes allowed last year, on the grounds that the state rent law enacted last June had eliminated or limited many other ways they could raise rents. The coronavirus epidemic and the mass unemployment it set off scotched that. In April, the mayor called for a rent freeze.

Even owner representative Patti Stone proposed a three-month freeze. She advocated allowing increases of 2 to 3 percent for a one-year lease and 4.75 to 5.5 percent for two years, but said those increases should be delayed from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1.

“It is not this board’s place and responsibility to provide affordable housing,” declared Stone, a veteran real-estate lawyer whose firm says she specializes in “demolition applications, luxury deregulation, harassment proceedings, and overcharge cases.” Landlords have lost income in the epidemic too, particularly rent from commercial tenants, she added, and tenants who’ve lost their jobs should look to the government for relief instead.

“I am not heartless,” she continued, but said the RGB’s job is not to be moved by “stories that pull on everyone’s heartstrings.”

The board was not moved by her proposal, rejecting it by the usual 7-2 vote.

It also rejected Goodridge and Garcia’s proposal to roll back rents, by up to 3 percent for a one-year lease and 2 percent for two years, by the same margin.

Goodridge called reducing rents by those amounts an “incredibly moderate” proposal next to ideas like cancelling rent completely for the duration of the epidemic. While the board’s figures showed that landlords’ net operating income decreased slightly last year, that was the first time it hadn’t risen in 15 years.

“We’re not talking about people going underwater,” she said. “We’re talking about a slight dip.” State law, she added, lets landlords who aren’t making an adequate profit apply for hardship rent increases—but less than five a year do.

Meanwhile, she said later, moderate-income tenants are “one tragedy away from being in my office.” Losing a job, a serious illness, or fleeing domestic violence can quickly have them facing eviction, and if they are forced out, finding a new apartment is next to impossible.

“We can’t not look at the pandemic,” she concluded. If people want to help essential workers, “there’s a lot more we can do than clapping. We need to ensure that these people can stay in their homes.”

The board also voted 7-2 to propose freezing rents for single-room occupancy hotels and rooming houses. The last time it allowed increases for those units was in 2011.

The Rent Guidelines Board will hear testimony from tenants at a public hearing on June 10 and June 11. You can sign up to testify starting June 1 at https://rentguidelinesboard.cityofnewyork.us.

Upcoming Hearings

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 4 P.M. – 7 P.M.
Virtual Public Hearing where the public can testify live.
The public can also submit written, video and voice comments prior to the hearing. (Registration and further details to be posted later.)

Thursday, June 11, 2020 6 P.M. – 9 P.M
Virtual Public Hearing where the public can testify live. The public can also submit written, video and voice comments prior to the hearing. (Registration and further details to be posted later.)

Final Vote

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 7 P.M.
Livestream the meeting via YouTube