Tenants to de Blasio: Roll Back Our Rents!

Take Message to Gracie Mansion Feb. 26

On February 26, Met Council and other members of the Rent Justice Coalition will take to the streets in front of Gracie Mansion to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio support having the city Rent Guidelines Board roll back rents when it votes on permissible increases for New York’s 1,000,000 rent-stabilized households in June. They are also calling on him to reject statements by officials in his administration that called for substantial rent increases.

Tenants are demanding that the RGB nullify the increases it allowed in the past two years and reduce rents to what they were in 2018. The board’s 2019 Income and Affordability study, which used figures from 2018, found that “a majority of rent-stabilized tenants cannot afford their apartments.” Meanwhile, owners’ profits have skyrocketed. They have set new records for 13 straight years now, reaching 40.7 percent of every rent dollar in 2018, according to the RGB’s 2019 Income & Expense study.

De Blasio’s housing commissioner, Louise Carroll, told a Crain’s forum in October that the RGB should increase rents substantially in response to the 2019 Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act’s closing many of the loopholes landlords had used to jack up rents.

“We are in a new climate,” Carroll stated. “We can’t look to past RGB increases as indications of what will happen in the future.” What she didn’t acknowledge is that, while the new law will prevent many of the worst abuses landlords used to create massive rent increases, it did nothing to lower rents from those unaffordable levels, aside from those tenants who may now be able to challenge some illegal overcharges.

The Buck Stops at City Hall

The mayor appoints all nine members of the RGB—two tenant representatives, two landlord representatives, and five public members, including the chair. By 2014, when de Blasio took office after campaigning for a rent freeze, New York’s affordability crisis had become crushing, after 20 years of increases under mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg: Half of all rent-stabilized households paid at least 34.9 percent of their income in rent, well over the 30 percent federal hardship level. Owners’ profits had increased for eight straight years, reaching a then-record level of 39.5 percent of every rent dollar in 2014.

In the first six years of de Blasio’s mayoralty, however, the RGB allowed further increases for tenants signing one-year lease renewals of 1, 0, 0, 1.25, 1.5 and 1.5 percent, meaning those tenants have seen a total increase of 5.35 percent since 2014. Two-year renewals were increased by 2.75, 2, 2, 2, 2.5 and 2.5 percent. Tenants who took two-year renewals in even-numbered years saw their rents increase by 7.4 percent, and those who did in odd-numbered years saw a total increase of 6.6 percent.

Last June, despite record-setting profits for landlords and the amount the median tenant spends on rent reaching a new high of 36 percent of their income, the RGB ignored calls to freeze or roll back rent. Instead, it allowed increases of 1.5 percent for a one-year renewal and 2.5 percent for two years. RGB chair David Reiss, the only board member who serves at the mayor’s pleasure instead of having a set term, made it clear that he got his marching orders from City Hall—at a time when it was widely reported that de Blasio was soliciting real-estate contributions for his ill-fated presidential bid.

A Tale of Two Cities

Given the shocking contrast between the best of times for landlords and the worst of times for tenants, the spectacle of de Blasio’s housing commissioner calling for even bigger increases than in previous years is distressing, but it is not a complete surprise. In April 2019, de Blasio appointed Vicki Been as deputy mayor for housing and economic development. Been, former head of the Furman Center on Real Estate at New York University, has long been a critic of rent and eviction protections, espousing discredited “free market supply and demand” theories which have little or no relationship to the reality of the city’s housing situation. The extreme shortage of affordable housing means tenants have no bargaining power and near-monopoly conditions prevail, unless there is strong government action “to prevent exactions of unjust, unreasonable and oppressive rents… tending to produce threats to the public health, safety and general welfare,” as the city’s rent-stabilization law states in its “Findings and Declaration of Emergency.”

“Tenants cannot afford further increases this year, and we won’t stand for them, “ declared Met Council director Ava Farkas. “We will bring our message to de Blasio’s mansion on February 26, and he’d better hear us!”