RGB Votes One-Year Rent Freeze, 1% Increase in Second Year

In an online meeting June 17, the city Rent Guidelines Board voted 6-3 to freeze rents for one year and allow 1 percent increases in the second year of a two-year lease.

“While we pushed for greater protections for tenants, we acknowledge that the final vote is a historic win,” tenant representative Leah Goodridge, who joined the five public members in voting yes, told Tenant/Inquilino after the meeting. “It’s the first time that a rent freeze was passed for part of a two-year lease renewal. It’s a small measure of support for tenants struggling to make ends meet due to the ravages of the coronavirus.”

Sheila Garcia, the other tenant representative, and the two landlord representatives voted no. The guidelines will apply to leases renewed in the year beginning Oct. 1.

The RGB also voted 7-2 to freeze rents on single-room-occupancy hotels and similar lodgings, for the ninth year in a row.

“We find any rent increase in the middle of a pandemic to be unconscionable. We are glad that the Rent Guidelines Board and the mayor are giving tenants some relief with these historic low increases,” said Met Council executive director Ava Farkas. “Having virtual hearings left many tenants unable to testify due to limited slots, a confusing system, and the digital divide that exists in our city.”

“I’m really shocked we didn’t get a rent rollback. It was already something we needed badly,” said Bronx tenant Trinity Mirabito, a Met Council member. “If we didn’t get it this year during a pandemic, what will it take?”

Garcia and Goodridge had proposed a rent rollback at the RGB’s preliminary meeting in May, but it was rejected by a 7-2 vote.

The meeting, watched on YouTube by about 250 people, was eerily quiet, with boxed images of board chair David Reiss in front of a laminated world map and public member Christian Gonzalez-Rivera in front of a wall of books replacing crowds of tenants waving “0%” signs and chanting “La renta sube, sube, el pueblo sufre, sufre” (the rents go up, go up, the people suffer, suffer).

Reiss, who proposed the final guidelines, said that some of the board’s figures indicated that a bigger increase was warranted, particularly a 3.5 percent increase in the Price Index of Operating Costs market basket, driven by insurance and taxes. Landlords’ net operating income as a percentage of revenue declined slightly, he added, but it was the first such decrease in 14 years, and the number of “distressed” buildings is at a historic low.

Also on the other side of the equation, he continued, is the mass unemployment caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. Even before the virus hit, housing was already “unaffordable for many New Yorkers.”

Landlord representative Scott Walsh said the epidemic and the hard look being taken at racial inequality had created an “opportunity to create a more just and inclusive society.”

He then proposed rent increases of 2 percent for a one-year lease renewal and 5 percent for two years, saying that between the strengthening of state rent-stabilization laws last year and the rent freezes the RGB has approved over the past five years, there is a “clear and overt mandate government has put into motion to force disinvestment in housing stock.” More than one-third of landlords’ revenue goes to property taxes, he added.

With the average stabilized rent outside “core Manhattan” about $1,250 a month, he said, a 1 percent increase meant “we are debating a monthly increment of $10 to $20.”

Garcia called that “tone-deaf,” saying that extra $10 or $20 would mean Bronx tenants making $15,000 a year would have to choose between paying rent and buying food. The board rejected the proposed increase by 7-2.

It also rejected Goodridge and Garcia’s proposal for a two-year rent freeze by 6-3, with Gonzalez-Rivera voting yes.

“We’ve been comparing one person’s business venture to another person’s pain and literal survival,” Goodridge told the meeting, comparing it to people who are more bothered by property damage at Black Lives Matter protests than by George Floyd being choked to death by a police officer. No landlords applied to the state for hardship-based rent increases last year, she said, while “the people who keep this city running can’t afford to live here.”

 “Where will you go when your rent goes up?” asked Inwood tenant leader Paloma Lara, also a Met Council member. “Middle, working-class, and most importantly the poor, we’re all scared and know that we won’t be able to afford any kind of rent hike, especially after this pandemic. Go on StreetEasy to look and you won’t find a studio apt below $1,600! This city has become unaffordable for all except the rich. This is the time when the Mayor and the RGB should be working for us and not landlords.”