Turmoil on Westchester RGB

Last month, the two tenant representatives on the Westchester County Rent Guidelines Board resigned from the panel to protest the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s appointing landlord lawyer Michael Rosenblatt as one of its five public members.

Rosenblatt is the DHCR’s former deputy counsel, who oversaw the administration of rent laws in Westchester, Nassau, and Rockland counties during his stint in the agency’s Office of Rent Administration. Before he worked at ORA, he spent five years with landlord lobbyists the Rent Stabilization Association, and he is now of counsel to Rosenberg & Estis, the most prominent landlord law firm in New York City.

Under the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974, which first extended rent stabilization to the suburbs, the DHCR commissioner appoints all nine members of the suburban RGBs, but can only appoint persons nominated by the county legislature. Rosenblatt’s appointment was the first time the agency ever suggested an appointment to the Westchester legislature.

The two tenant representatives, Genevieve Roche (who has served on the RGB since 2010) and Emma Loftin-Woods (on the board since 2002), both charged that the DHCR had effectively given the landlords three votes on the RGB instead of two. They were also unhappy that the board had curtailed the amount of time for debating data presented to it, and had eliminated their time to rebut the landlords’ presentation.

Every year Roche has prepared careful statistical analyses of income and expenditure data presented to the board by ORA staff, culled from the annual I&E statements landlords of rent-stabilized properties are required to submit. She has shown that owners’ net operating incomes have increased dramatically, even in years when the board froze rents. Roche’s analysis is so credible that last year, ORA staff incorporated her two spreadsheets into its Explanatory Statement, issued annually to justify the board’s final vote.

Board chair Jane Morgenstern has ignored these data, which for the last two years clearly support a rent freeze or even a rent rollback, and has pursued a “cut it down the middle” approach, uniting the public members to get the five votes needed to set guidelines. Last year’s rent adjustments were 1.75 percent for one-year lease renewals and 2.75 percent for two-year renewals. Data from ORA show that Westchester has lost 5,150 apartments to vacancy deregulation since 2010, the last time the board adopted a rent freeze, and that the number of apartments renting for less than $1,000 per month decreased by 5 percent from 2014 to 2015.

ORA staff have lobbied Roche and Loftin-Woods to reconsider and rejoin the board in time for this year’s vote, scheduled for June 20. Roche has stated that she will not return unless Rosenblatt resigns, or agrees to recuse himself from the final vote, both of which he has refused to do.

Loftin-Woods, who has stated her intention to resign for several years, and who in 2012 refused to support a rent freeze because she would not personally benefit from it, has rescinded her resignation.

Rosenblatt’s appointment, in the spring of 2015, was pushed by Chuck Lesnick, his replacement as ORA deputy counsel. Lesnick, a Democrat, was president of the Yonkers City Council until he was forced out by term limits at the end of 2013. Gov. Andrew Cuomo then tapped him to administer suburban rent regulations out of the DHCR’s White Plains office. His limited knowledge of the rent laws gave the appointment a strong aroma of patronage.

County legislators had been advancing the nomination of former state senator Joe Montalto. Lesnick intervened in the process, and with the help of landlord lobbyists and Board of Legislators chair Mike Kaplowitz, substituted Rosenblatt. The legislature nominally has a 10-7 Democratic majority, but Kaplowitz and one other Democrat caucus with the Republicans to give them a majority.

 When Roche and Loftin-Woods tried to go on the record at a board meeting objecting to Rosenblatt’s appointment, Morgenstern ruled them out of order, and the two landlord representatives shouted them down. Rosenblatt went ballistic, yelling that his parents were socialists and how dare anyone question his integrity.

Lesnick claims that he was just trying to be helpful. But it seems clear that he was following instructions from the governor’s office.