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Angry Tenants Blow Whistles on RGB ‘Farce’-But Board Slams Renters with $45 Minimum

Steven Wishnia Jun 20, 2008

With their voices drowned out by the screeching whistles of protesters, the city Rent Guidelines Board socked tenants with a massive rent increase June 19.

The board voted 5-4 to allow increases of up to 4.5 percent on a one-year lease and 8.5 percent on a two-year lease. Tenants who pay less than $1,000 a month and have been living in the same apartment for more than six years will get hit harder: The board voted a $45 minimum increase on a one-year lease and $85 for two years. As usual, the RGB’s five Bloomberg-appointed public members constituted the majority bloc.

Over the last few years, tenants twisted in the wringer of stagnant wages and skyrocketing rents have grown increasingly weary of the public members’ repeated imposition of rent increases, almost always with no public debate. Mayor Bloomberg fired the one public member he appointed who supported tenants’ calls for a rent freeze.

“The guidelines are a joke, the mayor’s a joke,” said Dahlia Duperroir of Hell’s Kitchen. “We need to get home rule. Working people need more than two jobs, and people on fixed incomes are getting pushed out.”

“Welcome to the sham,” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said at a rally before the meeting. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called the RGB a “rubber stamp for rent increases.” Both are supporting a bill sponsored by State Senator Tom Duane that would require mayoral appointees to the RGB to be confirmed by the City Council. It would also increase the number of landlord and tenant representatives so the public members would no longer form a majority on the nine-member board.

As of now, Quinn said, state law prevents the Council from doing anything to limit rent increases, such as barring them in buildings with violations or in apartments where the rent is illegally high.

Anger rose when the board voted 7-2 against tenant representative Adriene Holder’s attempt to block the minimum increases. When landlord representative Steven Schleider began to speak, screeching whistles drowned him out. The whistles-plastic, in order to foil the metal detectors put in after the RGB banned noisemakers-were so loud that chair Marvin Markus (nicknamed “Marvin Markup” by tenants) was forced to call a recess.

Holder said she had not known there was a formal proposal for a minimum increase until the morning of the meeting, when Markus issued a memo supporting it. “We really did feel kind of blindsided,” said Ronald Languedoc, the other tenant representative.

The minimum-increase idea was put into play at a public hearing in Brooklyn June 11, when about 20 small owners organized by the Rent Stabilization Association-the city’s largest landlord lobby-testified that they needed such increases to meet rising fuel costs. Though most of the city’s rent-stabilized apartments are owned by a small number of large real-estate companies, the RSA has historically used small owners, especially outer-borough immigrant ones, as poster children to demand rent increases.

“These tenants don’t like to pay rent,” said Madelene Phillips, a Caribbean-accented woman who owns a seven-unit building in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. “My water bill is over $3,000. You rent an apartment to one person and they get six in there.”

Rents in her building range from $730 for an elderly person on the SCRIE program to $1,231 for a two-bedroom apartment subsidized by the federal Section 8 program, but Phillips has little sympathy for tenant complaints about housing costs. “If you live in someone’s building and you can’t afford to pay, you should move,” she says. “I have to pay mortgage, water, fuel. On the first of the month.”

Landlord turnout was the highest it’s been at an RGB vote in the past decade. Owners constituted about one-third of the crowd there. Like British soccer fans trying to take the opposing team’s end of the stands, they occupied seats on what traditionally has been the tenant side of the room, setting the stage for shouting matches. “Get a fuckin’ job!” one landlord screamed at a woman SRO tenant. “I have a fucking job!” the woman shouted back.

Two of the public members were believed to have opposed the minimum increases at first, but voted for them in the end. “It was the best deal we could negotiate,” said public member Risa Levine. “The [state] Legislature and City Council should be embarrassed for their failure to deal with affordable housing.”

Levine would prefer to switch to an income-based system. “The rent-stabilization law should be thrown out,” she says. “It puts an undue burden on landlords. They’re the only industry that’s forced to subsidize people.”

Abolishing rent controls in favor of such a system might require the government to subsidize rents for all tenants who make less than $100,000 a year, she was told. Landlords could get tax credits for providing low-income housing, she replied.

“It is very unfortunate these demonstrations took place,” chimed in Betty Phillips Adams, another public member. “If the tenant representatives say they are for a zero percent increase, and costs are up, there can be no discussion.”

Tenants and their supporters were angry and resigned after the vote. “I have elderly neighbors who’ve been in the building for 30 years. We can’t afford another rent increase,” said Marcella Mitaynes, an unemployed child-care worker from Sunset Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood rapidly being gentrified as prices rise in Park Slope to the north. As her rent is $624, she’ll get hit with the minimum increase.

This was Mitaynes’ first time at an RGB meeting, and she brought her 8-year-old daughter, Josephine, who carried a sign reading “Born and Raised in NYC-I Want to Stay Here!”

“It’s bad,” Languedoc sighed after the meeting. “We were never able to put together five votes.”

Though tenants’ rent burdens are far outstripping their incomes, rising fuel and water costs made the public members more sympathetic to landlords, and the real-estate lobby was very effective at bringing out small owners, he said. (If the lobby’s plaint in the ’80s and ’90s was that small owners would be forced to abandon their buildings if they didn’t get massive rent increases, now it’s that they’ll be forced to sell to predatory-equity companies if they don’t-although the board’s increases also enrich predatory-equity owners.) So the only possible compromises involved rent increases he and Holder found unacceptably high.

Tenants’ best hope, he speculates, will come from outside the RGB.

The board also voted 4.5 percent increases for SRO tenants, although owners in buildings where more than 15 percent of the rooms are occupied by transients or market-rate tenants will not be allowed to charge them

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