“RUDY MUST GO!” Outraged Tenants Disrupt RGB Meeting

They came from Morris Heights, Kew Gardens, and Chinatown; from City and Suburban Houses in Manhattan and Brightwater Towers in Brooklyn; from the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, the Union Comunal de Washington Heights, and the Queens League of United Tenants. Almost 400 angry tenants jammed the auditorium at One Police Plaza on June 24, protesting the Rent Guidelines Board’s proposal to allow the highest rent increases since 1989. The RGB ignored them. It voted to allow increases of 5 percent on a one-year lease renewal and 7 percent for two years, plus a 9 percent surcharge on vacant apartments and a $20 “poor tax” on apartments renting for under $400 a month. The vote was 6-2, with tenant representatives Leslie Holmes and Kenneth Rosenfeld dissenting and board chair Ed Hochman abstaining.

The increases — identical to the ones ordained by City Hall in May — passed without a speck of debate from the five Giuliani-appointed public members. “We’re screwed,” Holmes said before the meeting. “The landlords aren’t even bothering to show up. It’s a done deal.”

The mostly elderly tenants, who had been booing and cheering lustily throughout the meeting, surged into the aisles during the vote, chanting “Rudy Must Go!” and “City-Wide Rent Strike — We Won’t Pay.”

The board had earlier voted 6-2 against a Rosenfeld proposal for increases of 1 and 3 percent, with no poor tax or vacancy surcharge, then rejected a Holmes-sponsored “compromise” of 2 and 4 percent. Holmes drew loud applause when she closed her speech with “You’re going to see the outrage all the way to Albany in June 1997.” The vote was 5-2.

“When they rejected the two and four, it tells you the fix is in,” said Sol Shargel, a tenant at Brightwater Towers in Coney Island. “It’s a charade up there.” “Can we take a couple of these guys and drown them?” asked another Brightwater Towers resident, suggesting that a long walk off the Steeplechase Pier would be a just punishment for imposing rent increases.

“We’ve not heard from a single public member to justify these increases,” Rosenfeld said.

“We cannot compel people to debate,” Hochman replied.

The board then voted 6-3 to cut off debate, and tenants in the crowd rose up, chanting “Rudy, Remember — We’ll Vote in November.” Police blocked access to the stage, and the board voted on the final guidelines under shouts of “Prostitutes” and “We won’t pay.”

The crowd kept chanting for the next hour. At one point, Hochman asked police if it was possible to clear the room. The police captain in charge replied that it wasn’t a good idea. The meeting ended under chants of “Shame on you, RGB” and “Rivera Vendido” (“sellout,” aimed at Agustin Rivera, the board’s sole Latino member).

Hochman justified the increases on the grounds that landlords’ fuel costs had increased dramatically last winter. He said the 9 percent vacancy surcharge was a “compromise” between the landlord representatives’ proposal for a 15 percent surcharge and the tenant representatives’ proposal for none.

But tenants squeezed by ever-increasing rents weren’t buying that line — especially when accompanied by rationalizations like the claim that high vacancy increases only affect new tenants. “We’re concerned about affordable housing,” said Elizabeth Suarez of Kew Gardens. “We don’t want landlords to price us out of the ballgame.”

Kay McLoughlin, a 36-year resident of the City and Suburban Homes buildings on the Upper East Side, said she was “very pleased” with the protest. “We’re required to stand up for what’s right,” she said. “These are seniors speaking out.”

The board also voted 5-3 against a Rosenfeld motion to delete the “poor tax,” with Rivera abstaining and public member Earl Andrews joining the tenant representatives. “Twenty dollars a month may not mean much to you,” Holmes told the other board members. “It may be just a taxi ride or a cocktail. But for many families, it’s the difference between feeding their children and remaining in their homes.”

In other actions, the RGB set guidelines of 4 and 6 percent increases for lofts and no increases for single-room occupancy hotel and rooming-house tenants. For rent-controlled apartments being vacated and becoming rent-stabilized, it voted a advisory minimum of the maximum base rent plus 40 percent or the maximum collectable rent plus 50 percent, whichever is greater.

Tenants also outnumbered landlords at the public hearings on June 20, with nearly two-thirds of the more than 200 people who signed up to testify pro-tenant. As usual, most of the landlords who testified were small owners, most of whom said they were unable to make a profit or maintain their buildings while renting apartments for below $500 a month. (One Washington Heights landlord complained that the proposed increases would only allow him to raise a vacant $519 two-bedroom to $593, instead of the $900 it would get on the free market, and said he feared tenants who have asked him for bigger apartments would resent him for “playing favorites” if he picked one of them instead of renting it to the highest bidder.)

Longtime Met Council activist Jane Benedict responded that the city’s real-estate industry is using the small owners as a “crying towel,” presenting them as “a front before the public so the big landlords can rake it in.” Of the approximately 25,000 landlords who own the city’s million-plus rent-stabilized apartments, a group of about 3,000 — 12 percent of the total — own 70 percent of them.

Manhattan Councilmember Thomas Duane called the high vacancy increase “a political giveaway.” And Brooklyn Democrat Annette Robinson warned that high rents were creating “a tale of two cities,” divided between the rich and the destitute. (See accompanying list of elected officials who testified against the increases.)

Unlike last year, the board didn’t attempt to impose any exotic deregulatory schemes, although public member Paul Atanasio did ask Legal Aid lawyer Edna Figueroa if it wouldn’t be “better” to abolish rent regulations and replace them with a “means-tested subsidy.” “It’s a farce to think that government will be nice and take care of people,” Figueroa replied, noting recent cuts in public housing and Section 8 subsidies. (Such a formula would also do nothing for the working and middle-class tenants now protected by rent regulations who can’t afford market-rate housing.)

But given the RGB public members’ sheeplike performance in the May preliminary-guidelines hearings, many tenant activists were cynical about whether anyone was listening. “This board is completely stacked,” testified Met Council organizer William Rowen. “The public members do not represent the public. They take orders from the Mayor and translate them into guidelines.” Rowen told the board that the only public member he had respect for was Elissa Fitzig, because she had left early instead of “pretending” to listen to tenants present their case.

Tenant organizers are now focusing on how to get the rent-regulation laws past the hostile Republicans in Albany when they expire next year — as well as plotting electoral revenge against Giuliani. “If these guidelines are approved,” said Rowen, “we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that the Mayor does not get a second term.”