Tenant activists at the RBG rent hike vote on June 20. Credit: Timothy Bidon
No Rent Freeze for NYC Tenants

New York City housing is on track to become even more unaffordable after the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) voted on June 20 for another round of hefty rent hikes. In a vote of 5 to 4, the RGB passed a provision to allow rent hikes in rent-stabilized apartments of 4 percent on one-year leases, and 7.75 percent on two-year leases. 

This is a vote that takes place annually, but the rent hikes that the RGB put forth this year are the highest since 2008. In 2012, RGB passed rent hikes at 2 percent for one-year leases, and 4 percent for two-year leases. In 2011, the hike was 3.75 percent for one-year leases and 7.25 percent for two.

For low-income tenants already struggling to make their rent payments, this hike threatens to make living in NYC even more inaccessible. But the issue of rent affordability in NYC is a polarizing one, and the physical arrangement of participants in the public meeting, held in the Great Hall at Cooper Union,  went to show just that. On stage was the board, consisting of nine members who were roped off from the rest of the audience. Beyond the ropes, there were two distinct groups: landlords and tenants. Each group, more or less, had clustered together on each side of the room. 

On the tenant side, people held up signs – reading “0% Rent Increase,” “Laissez-faire mon derriere,” and others – asking the RGB for a rent freeze this year. The landlords, on the other hand, held signs saying things such as “Free Market! Keep communism out of NYC housing!” The scene was tense, and that which drew cheers from one group drew boos from the other. The RGB sat elevated on the stage, facing the sharply divided room, and they voted to raise the rent.

The RGB has a reputation for aligning with the city government and real-estate interests. Many tenant advocates believe that the board’s “public” members are not serving the public interest at all.  Courtney Moore, one of the board’s “public members,” is a private wealth advisor and an executive at Merrill Lynch’s Ryan Group. The chair, Jonathan Kimmel, retains close ties to Bloomberg after having served as legal director of the city’s Teacher’s Retirement System and been a member of the New York City Residential Mortgage Insurance Corporation. Carol Shine, another “public member,” has served as a lawyer for the City Council’s Land-Use Division for nearly two decades. 

The meeting started with a proposal from the two tenant representatives on the board, Harvey Epstein and Brian Cheigh.  Epstein began: “Tenants are struggling.” He spoke about the testimonials of tenants at preceding RGB hearings on the issue, noting that some of them pay as much as 67 percent of their income towards rent. He spoke of tenants who face eviction if the RGB doesn’t freeze rents this year. “These are real people, with real struggles,” said Epstein, “therefore I say, we need a rent-freeze now.”

The proposal was met with thunderous applause and cheers from the tenants in the room, but the measure failed, 7-2, with only the two tenant representatives voting in favor.

The remaining four public members, board chair and two owner members voted no.

Before the board passed the rent hike, there were a number of hollow speeches from both the owner members, and the chair of the board speaking to the “struggling of property owners in New York City.” Members continued that it was “not the responsibility of the RGB” to put forth measures to keep rent affordable, and that the public should seek help from other city government agencies which have done a poor job of managing their money.

In the end, the rent-hikes that the board passed left neither landlords nor tenants happy. Tenants voiced their disappointment that the rent hikes were too high, while landlords voiced their disapproval that the rent hikes were on the low end of the proposed range (3.25 – 6.25 percent for one-year leases and 5 – 9.5 percent for two.)

Ramon Garrido is a tenant who came to the meeting. For over two decades, Garrido has lived and worked in NYC, but the unaffordable rent pushed him out of the city and into New Jersey.

“The RGB has been doing this for 34 years,” said Garrido, “Rent increase after rent increase. It doesn’t matter to them if tenants show up and prove that landlords have enough benefits, they’ll still increase the rent.”

Diane Felix is a single mother living in Washington Heights, and she was also disappointed with the outcome of the meeting. “I’m a single mother with two kids who are already going to college, and I can hardly afford what I’m paying in my rent right now, and with this increase I’m not sure how I’m going to do it,” she said.

Both Garrido and Felix explained that the RGB is severely out of touch with the voices of the tenants: “It’s about time that the people decide to stop this madness because they just won’t listen to the tenants,” said Garrido.

Felix explained that the RGB is hardly representative of tenant interests, “It’s ridiculous, because this board is two landlords, five investors, people with money who are supposed to be representing the public, but there are only two people defending us.”

But, despite the tenant presence at the meeting, NYC will continue to skyrocket in price, leaving many low-income and minority residents with questions as to where to go next. No one can be sure when this pattern will end: “It’s a big game. This is what Bloomberg does, it’s a big game over here,” said Felix.