Under Heavy Security, RGB Recommends Up to 6.75% Increase

Under heavy police security and with even less debate than usual, the city Rent Guidelines Board voted May 1 to recommend a range of rent increases for 2012-13: 1.75 to 4 percent for a one-year lease renewal and 3.5 to 6.75 percent for two years.

The suggested increases are slightly smaller than the ones the RGB voted last year, which were 3.75 percent for one year and 7.25 percent for two years. The board will set the final guidelines June 21. Those will apply to lease renewals for apartments and lofts that go into effect on or after Oct. 1. 

The vote came in front of a nearly empty room, as the tenant groups who usually protest decided to stay outside and hold a “people’s RGB.” That strategy grew out of long-growing frustration that the board’s process is “rigged,” that its five public members “rubber-stamp” rent increases year after year, pay only lip service to tenant needs, and will be fired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appoints the board, if they dissent. (A bill to require City Council confirmation of RGB appointees is pending in the Assembly.)

“We’re not going to go in and buy into the process,” Maggie Russell-Ciardi of Tenants & Neighbors told the crowd of about 125 people assembled outside Cooper Union.

Instead, the rally began with an Occupy Wall Street-style “mic check,” followed by speakers including longtime Lower East Side activist Frances Goldin and City Councilmember Jumaane Williams. Williams criticized the media for portraying the RGB’s rent increases as a phony middle ground, covering the story as a squabble between tenants and landlords in which both sides are equal.

Tenants at the rally sounded a common theme. “Rising rents are making it impossible for anyone to live here,” said Vivian Riffelmacher, a hospital worker. She and her husband, a media technician, are applying for “affordable” housing, she added—and some apartments are $1,800 a month. 

“It’s becoming a city of the wealthy and not the people who are struggling,” said SRO tenant J. Ramos. 

With the Bloomberg administration bringing out massive numbers of police for the Occupy Wall Street protests that day, security was unprecedentedly heavy. Metal barricades cordoned off sections of the small concrete plaza outside the Cooper Union building, and a dozen-odd police officers watched from the side. Security guards lined the narrow passageway into the building. Few demonstrators from the main Occupy march—in which thousands of people paraded down Broadway, one block to the west—joined the RGB protest, however.

Inside, the RGB conducted business in front of a handful of people, about 10 on the landlord side, about 15 on the tenant side. Tenant representative Brian Cheigh proposed a rent freeze, saying that tenants “are in a very dire state because of the recession.” Adriene Holder, the other tenant representative, seconded the motion, saying that the 2011 Housing and Vacancy Survey had found “the highest rent burdens ever recorded” in the history of rent stabilization—with half of tenants paying more than 35 percent of their income for rent, up from 31 percent in 2008—and a “dramatic decrease” in the number of distressed buildings, from 11 percent to 7 percent. The board rejected the freeze, 7-2.

Next, owner representative Steven Schleider proposed increases of 5 percent for one year and 9 percent for two years, with corresponding minimum increases of $50 and $90 a month for tenants who’ve lived in their apartment for six years or more. Four out of five tenants can afford to “share the burden,” he claimed, and “thousands of affordable apartments are being built in the city” by the Bloomberg administration. If the RGB voted a rent freeze, he argued, it would encourage elected officials to ignore the problem of landlords’ costs and housing affordability, while raising rents would encourage them to do something about it.

As usual, the RGB turned him down, 7-2.

Board chair Jonathan Kimmel then proposed the 1.75-6.75 percent range, as about 15 people marched into the hall, chanting, “Occupy and shut it down, New York is a tenants’ town.” The chanting drowned him out for a few moments, and then the board approved his proposal 5-4. All five public members voted yes, and there was not a word of debate.

The RGB went through a similar process for single-room occupancy units, although the process was oddly convoluted, with the landlord representatives voting against a proposal for higher rent increases than the ones they later suggested.

After the board rejected proposals for an 8 percent increase (from owner representative Magda Cruz) and for a rent freeze (from Holder), Kimmel proposed that SROs should get the same increases as regular apartments, 1.75 to 4 percent on a one-year lease. It lost 6-3, with only public members Ronald Scheinberg and David Wenk joining Kimmel. Cruz then proposed a range of 1 to 3.5 percent, with no increase if less than 90 percent of the units in a building are occupied by rent-stabilized tenants. This time, she and Schleider joined the three who’d supported the larger increase, and the recommendation carried by 5-4.

“We need living wages, Pharaoh Bloomberg,” a heckler shouted as the meeting adjourned.