Tenants in New York City can’t catch a break. Rents tend to go in one direction: up.
This was especially apparent during the Rent Guidelines Board’s (RGB’s) recent meeting on June 26. Tenant groups from across the city packed the Great Hall at Cooper Union to make their voices heard as the Rent Guidelines Board decided to raise rents on rent-stabilized leases for the second year in a row.
The 9-person, mayor-appointed board voted 5 to 4 to approve increases of 1.5 percent for 1-year lease renewals and 2.5 percent for 2-year lease renewals. The decision was met with anger from the audience, who turned their backs on the RGB. Chants of “shame” filled the auditorium as the chair of the board, Kathleen Roberts, called the room to order.
The RGB voted in 2015 and 2016 for a rent freeze on the 1 million apartments it regulates for the first time since it formed in 1969, yet over the past two years it has been back to business as usual.
“63,000 people will sleep in homeless shelters tonight,” said Leah Goodridge, who represents tenant interests on the board.
Goodridge put forward a motion backed by tenant coalitions for a rent freeze but it was not carried by the board, which also includes representatives for landlords and the “public,” who tend to follow the chair’s lead in favor of the landlord camp. Goodridge said that during the previous rent freeze landlords didn’t exactly take a hit, noting that they profited an average of $312,000 each.
“People make this city, so my vote is for you,” she said addressing the audience and voicing opposition to the increase.
Tenants have overwhelmingly outnumbered owners at this and previous RGB hearings. In public testimonials before the board, they have argued by the hundreds for freezes on rent or rent reductions. When asked why there weren’t more landlords on hand, Aaron Sirulnick, chairman of the misleadingly-titled landlord advocacy group, the Rent Stabilization Association, wasn’t certain, yet he suggested that owners didn’t feel welcome.
“We don’t wear little badges. I don’t know. I’d say there are a little more than a dozen here,” he said. Dressed in a sharp blue suit and crisp dress shirt, he glanced about the auditorium filled with angry tenants. He was surrounded. “Maybe more of us don’t come because we feel a little disenfranchised by the process.”
The rent increases the RGB approved on June 26 will affect the 52 buildings Sirulnick owns through Ditmas Management Corporation where 64 percent of the units, 2132 homes, are rent stabilized, according to data provided by the nonprofit justfix.nyc.
While few in number at RGB hearings, landlords have made their voices in heard in other ways. The advocacy group Sirulnick chairs spent over $1 million lobbying New York State politicians last year, according to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. Sirulnick seemed pleased with the rent increases, a bump from last year’s. “This outcome has been two years in the making. It’s about time they vote to reflect the increase in the operating costs of properties,” he said.
But the outcome of the vote is a blow to tenant organizers. It “defies logic,” said Lena Meléndez of Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale. “Hundreds of tenants testified, including old ladies living in Single Room Occupancies. Any increase would send them over a financial precipice. Politicians are in collusion with landlords. Our lives don’t matter if we’re making less than $60,000. This was a demonstration of that tonight.”
“It’s frustrating,” said Andrea Shapiro, an organizer for the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “What we need to do is change the rent laws.”
Shapiro called for abolishing a number of legal loopholes landlords habitually take advantage of to put the squeeze on tenants. These include Major Capital Improvements, which enable landlords to raise rents for conducting basic repairs; leases with preferential rent clauses that landlords use to hike the cost of lease renewals in exchange for a modest initial discount; and vacancy bonuses, which incentivize tenant harassment by allowing landlords to raise the rent once units are vacated.
Despite the outcome of the RGB vote, Shapiro said there is reason to be encouraged. RGB public member Rodrigo Camarena voted for the first time with tenant representatives, citing the compelling testimony of tenants in his decision to vote against the rent increase.
Fitzroy Christian, a housing organizer who has lived for 42 years in the Bronx, agreed that the vote by Camarena signals a change. “We were able to get one public member to understand that they can vote independently,” said Christian. “They don’t have to vote the way the chair does.”
It was, however, Camarena’s final vote on the board. His term concludes in December.
But Fitzroy and other tenant organizers promised to be back again next year when the board will vote again. “We didn’t get what we want, but we’ll be back fighting,” he said.
Photo (top): A packed auditorium at Cooper Union as the Rent Guidelines Board votes to raise rents. Credit: Awen Films.