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Rent Racket Landlords Headed for Another Big Increase

Steven Wishnia May 13, 2004

rent racket 

By Steven Wishnia

The city Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) broke precedent on May 10, voting to suggest a range of possible rent increases rather than setting a specific number as its preliminary guideline for rent-stabilized apartments. But for the 1 million households affected, the result will be more of the same: higher rents.

The RGB voted 5-4 to propose allowing increases of 3 to 5.5 percent for a one-year lease renewal and 5.5 to 7.5 percent for two years. If the board approves the 5.5 and 7.5 percent guidelines at its final vote June 17, that would be the highest rent increases allowed since the 1980s.

RGB chair Marvin Markus justified the idea of proposing a range as a means of opening up debate. Landlord representative Harold Lubell cast the deciding vote, rather begrudgingly.

The RGB’s annual votes are ritual exercises in political theatre. Scores of tenants and landlords pack the room, tenants mostly elderly in yellow “Stronger Rent Laws Now” and pink and white “I’m a Tenant and I Vote” painter’s caps, landlords in the blue and white baseball caps of their lobbying group.  Tenants usually outnumber landlords by about 2-1, and both sides cheer, boo, and heckle, while Markus—who tenants have nicknamed “Marvin Markup”—tries to keep order like an ill-tempered junior high-school teacher.

Yet over the last several years the outcome has been as preordained as pro wrestling. First, the two tenant representatives on the board propose a rent freeze or a minimal increase, talk about housing costs and homelessness, and lose 7-2. Then the two landlord representatives demand more money, warning that vast stretches of the outer boroughs will be abandoned if they don’t get it. This year they wanted a 9 percent increase, plus a $25-a-month surcharge on tenants who’d lived in the same apartment for eight years or more. Landlord representative Steven Schleider piously intoned that it’s the government, not property owners, who should subsidize poor people—while declaring that renewing a lease with only limited rent increases is “not a birthright, but a privilege.” Finally, the five public members pass a rent increase—as high as possible without causing political damage to the mayor who appointed them—with virtually no debate.

Markus “will do whatever he can to get rents up,” says Michael McKee of Tenants & Neighbors, while “most of the public members don’t have a clue about what real people go through.”

Tenants had the small victories of defeating the surcharge for long-term tenants—called an “equalization allowance” by Markus and a “senior-citizen tax” by tenants—and turning back the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to use the alleged costs of enforcing the city’s new lead-paint law to justify raising rents. Still, the endless rounds of annual rent increases are discouraging to many. 

“It’s demoralizing to be a part of this process. I’m tired of everything being balanced on the backs of working and poor people,” tenant representative Adriene Holder said after the vote. “This process has been all about setting landlords’ profit margins. It needs to be about the tenants.”

Tenants Speak out at May 10 Rent Board Meeting.
Photo: Fred Askew