RGB Votes 4.5% Increase

Westchester County’s rent board froze rents this year, and Nassau’s almost did—but the New York City Rent Guidelines Board would do nothing of the sort. On June 24, it voted to allow increases of 2.25 percent for a one-year lease renewal and 4.5 percent for two years.

Both tenant representatives on the board voted for the guidelines, saying they had no choice if they wanted to avert larger increases. The increases will apply to lease renewals effective between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30, 2011.

“If I don’t support this motion, it’s going to go higher,” tenant representative Adriene Holder said tearfully before casting her vote. “I’m so sorry.”
The board had earlier rejected a rent freeze, by the usual 7-2 margin, along with slightly smaller increases proposed by public members Risa Levine and Betty Phillips Adams, who emerged as a “moderate” bloc. But new chair Jonathan Kimmel, along with fellow Bloomberg appointees David Wenk and Ronald Scheinberg, joined the landlord representatives in voting them down.

“Kimmel wants two and a half and five percent. That means the mayor wants two and a half and five percent,” a prominent tenant activist muttered during a break before the final vote.

Holder was irked that the vote was arranged so she cast the deciding ballot. Kimmel and Wenk, who had indicated that they wanted a bigger increase, passed, and then voted yes after Holder did.

“I’m really sorry,” she said after the meeting. “The writing was on the wall that we’d have to vote for an increase. I was very disappointed because I thought my vote was needed to pass the lower increases.

“It’s a shame after what happened in Westchester and Nassau,” she added. “There, tenants were heard. Here, tenants were not heard.”
Risa Levine got the most attention when she spoke of her frustration with serving on the board, with the unrewarding task of trying to balance the needs of tenants losing jobs with those of landlords trying to make a profit on aging buildings. She denounced public officials who “cynically shift the burden of affordable housing onto this group” and lambasted the state courts for ruling that minimum increases on long-term tenants were illegal. That decision, recently upheld by the Appellate Division, struck down the minimum increases the board imposed in 2008 and 2009 for tenants who’ve occupied an apartment for more than six years and pay less than $1,000 a month.

The other board members thought that minimum was “creative,” Holder responded. “Ron [Languedoc, the other tenant member] and I thought it was illegal.”

Levine’s ideas to solve the city’s housing crisis include having the state Legislature increase housing subsidies; to impose an income test for rent-stabilized tenants, so those paying less than 20 or 25 percent of their income might lose their “subsidized housing”; to give landlords tax breaks for lead-paint abatement; and to prosecute code violations. She called rent stabilization, with its single citywide increase for all types of apartments, an “obsolete law.”

“I think the majority of the Rent Guidelines Board don’t believe in rent stabilization and don’t understand its importance. I don’t think they get it,” responds Elana Shneyer, head of organizing at the Pratt Area Community Council in Brooklyn. “I’ve seen many of the people in this room in Albany advocating for real change. I’ve never seen any of the board.”

Most rent-stabilized apartments in the city are owned by large companies, she pointed out. They choose to make an investment and take a risk to make a profit, while tenants need places to live. “It’s pretty clear from Risa’s comments that they see it as a subsidy,” Shneyer added. “It’s a shame you have people who don’t believe in the system voting on rent increases.”

Increases on lofts were included in the vote on the apartment guidelines. The board also voted 7-2 to freeze rents in SRO hotels and rooming houses.

The about 80 tenants who turned out to protest were predictably disappointed. “It’s terrible,” said Josephine Colon, 74, of Park Slope. “Everybody’s being pushed out. The senior centers are being closed.”

“There aren’t enough people here,” said Sarah Young, an elderly Bronx woman with a Caribbean accent. “It’s just like the transit. You didn’t have 200 people in the room. They do what they like.

“Food is up. Everything is up. How do they expect people to live?”