City Tenants and Officials Push Rent Freeze at Manhattan RGB Hearing

Giulia Olsson Jun 18, 2014

At 72 years old, Marietta Hawkes has been living in the East Side’s Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village for more than 37 years. However, as the 80-acre, 11,200-unit complex’s current owners and the city wrangle over the terms of an impending sale, soon enough, she may no longer be able to live there. She currently pays 45 percent of her income to rent, and the power to head off an increase seems to be out of her hands. “In Stuyvesant Town, CWCapital is the owner now, and we’re worried they’re gonna tear down the property and build high rises, destroying the land and the trees,” she laments. “And then shove the tenants out.” 

Along with about 100 New York City tenants and landlords, Hawkes lined up outside Chamber Street’s Emigrant Bank early Monday afternoon for the New York City Rent Guidelines Board’s (RGB) second public hearing on proposed rent guidelines. For one-year leases, there will be up to a 0 to 3 percent rent increase for properties rented after October 1, 2014, and for two-year leases, a 0.5 to 4.5 percent increase.  

2014 marks a historic year for the Rent Guidelines Board. Not only are the proposed increases some of the smallest to be considered in recent  years, but the board has also scheduled public hearings in four boroughs —  an increase from the one or two hearings that were the norm — including all but Staten Island. Five out of the nine board members are newly appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a rent freeze during his candidacy last year.  

Like many other tenants present in the hearing, Manhattan-born Hawkes fears she’ll have to soon pack her bags and leave. But where to? “I have credit card debt that hurts me if I want to apply for housing,” she says. “So where am I gonna go? I’m born here, I go to doctors here. I have medical issues!” Hawkes, representing senior tenants in Stuy Town, demanded a rent freeze in her June 16 testimony before the board. 

Tension ran high at the public hearing — tenants booed landlords, and landlords, outnumbered, shook their heads at the tenants. The meeting began with a senior citizen singing a tune at the podium that went along the lines, “Give us our rent-roll back, will ya!” Some tenants yelled out, “Oh no! Go cry to your mommy!” while landlords testified. City politicians in support of the rent freeze — including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer — were met with standing ovations, whistles and loud cheers, while some tenants sat in the front holding up posters with their personal rent-related stories, followed by the hashtag #RENTFREEZE. 

True to the annual tradition of RGB hearings, the debate went back and forth for hours. In her testimony, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer urged for a rent freeze. “These [rent] increases, granted to owners consistently … combined with MCI’s, enormous vacancy increases and individual apartment increases,” she argued, “have brought average rents in ordinary low-income, working class, middle-income and mixed neighborhoods to the very brink of or beyond affordability.” 

Other council members agreed with Brewer. Corey Johnson of Council District 3, serving Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and parts of SoHo and the Upper West Side, urged the RGB to take action so they do not “further deteriorate New York’s affordable housing stock.” Johnson asked for a rent freeze because “over four million people [in New York City] are living at or below poverty level line,” He added that, “The city’s prosperity is not equitably shared by its poor, working, or middle class families.” 

Landlords indicated that like the tenants, they also face a variety of financial hardships and would be hurt by a rent freeze. Sandy Rosen, a small landlord running a family-owned business in Brooklyn for over fifty years, thought the board needed to think twice before considering a rent freeze and encouraged its members to distinguish between small buildings and large buildings, since small building landlords “get the same charges and the same problems that large buildings [do], but [they] do not get the same revenue.” 

Rosen said that her water and gas bills increased 8 percent in the past year. “New and replacement purchases are also more expensive,” she added in her testimony. “It’s the cost of living. We all pay more and get less. And that holds true for tenants. I’m very fair.” Like the tenants present at the hearing, Rosen is also concerned about her future and the future of other small landlords. “How do we exist when things keep increasing and we do not get anything to compensate us? If [the RGB wants] to freeze rent, then come up with a solution that’s equitable to everyone.” Her proposal? Tell companies to stop increasing costs. 

The next RGB public hearings will be held at Brooklyn Borough Hall on June 18 at 5pm and at Queens Borough Hall on June 19 at 5pm. The final vote will be held on June 23 at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. 

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