The RGB Should Roll Back Rents!

On June 24, the city Rent Guidelines Board will vote to determine how much landlords can increase rents for the 2.5 million New Yorkers living in rent-stabilized apartments. Although rent regulation is the city’s largest affordable-housing program, more than half of the 1 million rent-stabilized households pay over 30 percent of their income for rent, and 30 percent pay more than half of their income. 

This year, a coalition of advocates, tenants, and elected officials is calling for a rent rollback. After decades of unnecessary and destructive increases, New York City is facing a terrible housing crisis, with record-high homelessness and a chronic shortage of apartments. At the preliminary RGB vote in April, the tenant representatives proposed decreasing rents by 4 percent for a one-year lease renewal and 2 percent for two years. Even though the board rejected this proposal, it can still rectify its role in forcing tenants out of their homes by voting to roll back rents when it meets on June 24.

“Without a rent rollback, I don’t know how I will continue to pay the bills, I’m worried that my kids and I will end up on the streets,” says Jamaica Taber, a rent-stabilized tenant living in East Williamsburg. “I’m not asking for a handout. My landlord is making obscene profits and trying to force out the regulated families. I just want to stay in my home.” 

New York has a severe and persisting housing shortage that distorts and destroys any notion of a competitive, fair market. For over two decades, overall vacancy rates in the city have remained around 3 percent. It is even lower for housing that working-class people can afford: In the 2014 Housing and Vacancy Survey, the vacancy rate was 2.12 percent for rent-stabilized apartments and a mere 1.8 percent for apartments under $800 per month. 

During the recent recession, while rents decreased around the country, New York tenants faced further increases. The RGB members chosen by Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought to increase rents, relying on faulty data that vastly overestimated landlord costs, even though tenant incomes declined and homelessness skyrocketed. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, the RGB allowed rent increases of 4.5 percent and 8.5 percent, even though owners’ operating costs remained virtually unchanged. 

“By any reasonable measure, since 1990, the RGB has hiked rents significantly more than necessary to keep owners whole in terms of operating costs and the effects of inflation on net income—at least 30 percent more,” explains Tim Collins, a tenant attorney and the RGB’s former executive director. “Most of the excess came during the recession, when tenants were badly hurt by stalled or declining incomes.” 

Working families are still recovering from the recession, and any rent increase threatens to force more New Yorkers onto the streets or out of the city. The RGB’s increases over the last several years have been just another front in the real-estate industry’s battle to end rent regulation and create a city exclusively for millionaires. 

“The rent increases adopted by the RGB from 2008 through 2013 can only be described as an illegitimate attempt to hasten the end of rent stabilization,” Collins says. “The only way to repair that damage is to adopt a series of modest rent rollbacks until this unwarranted landlord windfall is eliminated. There is no good policy reason to delay that process.”