In a five to four vote on Monday, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board shot down the possibility of a first-ever rent freeze in the board’s 45-year history. Rents will increase by 1 percent for residents signing one-year leases for rent-stabilized apartments and by 2.75 percent for residents signing two-year leases. Though the RGB did not deliver the rent freeze Mayor Bill de Blasio supported during his campaign, the 1 percent increase is the lowest one-year increase approved by the board since it was established in 1969. The previous low was 2 percent, enacted in 2012.
Hundreds of tenants left Monday’s RGB vote meeting disheartened and angry about the final decision. Outside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, one tenant trashed her poster that read, “Shame on the Rent Guidelines Board for Betraying Tenants.”
Some tenants felt the board failed to understand the suffering faced by renters across New York. “We were hoping to get a zero percent increase, and we did not get that. In the five boroughs, over 30,000 families were evicted last year,” said Bronx resident Kathleen Jones. “The amount of people that are in shelters and the amount of people that are being evicted — it’s ridiculous.”
An hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, hundreds of tenants rallied outside Cooper Union. Musicians sang rent freeze-themed tunes while tenants — representing community groups like the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, Community Action for Safe Apartments, Crown Heights Tenant Union, Mirabal Sisters and others — displayed their ‘0%’ posters and cheered each other on, The end of the rally was met with a speech by one of the RGB’s tenant members, Harvey Epstein. “Today is our moment,” he shouted. “The tenants are struggling, we’re trying to survive. Evictions are up. The data is with us, and today, in response to the data, the only right thing to do is to have a rent freeze. And today we’re gonna walk in and hopefully get that for you!”
His words, however, later fell flat. The large crowd slowly passed through security while inside, landlords clustered in a meager group and hundreds of tenants continued to rally, chanting in unison, “Tenants, united, will never be defeated!” At 7pm, with 250 people still waiting in line to enter, the meeting began.
The RGB’s conclusive vote was preceded by emotionally charged exchanges between board members and tenants in the crowd. RGB landlord representative Magda Cruz was met with boos and shouts of disapproval when she called the rent freeze proposal “radical” and “politically motivated.” Public member Steven Flax, a de Blasio appointee who serves as a vice president at M&T Bank, made the proposal to increase rents by 1 and 2.75 percent. He told the audience he had to act on his “conscience” since he knew from experience that, “It costs money to run buildings.” Tenants roared their disapproval, denouncing Flax as a “sellout.” RGB Chair Rachel Godsil proposed the rent freeze, arguing that owners’ incomes consistently increase while the tenants’ incomes have decreased, according to data presented to the board. But Flax’s proposal soon carried the day and hers was not voted on.
The board adjourned the meeting immediately following the vote and tenants rushed the stage, pushing past security guards to vent their frustration. “This is the first year that I walked in here thinking that a rent freeze was actually going to happen,” said Jumaane Williams, New York City councilman for the 45th district. “This was something de Blasio campaigned on, it’s something that many council members wanted, it’s something I think we had political will for and it just didn’t happen.”
Flax’s proposal came as a surprise to many who had thought him to be on their side. Looking back, Metropolitan Council on Housing Executive Director Jaron Benjamin said, “Tenants applauded Flax's appointment, but I think everyone was surprised that he was not in favor of a rent freeze. He’s a former director of Fifth Avenue Committee — an organization in Brooklyn that mobilized heavily in support of a freeze or rollback for the final vote — so we, in the tenant movement, thought that his vote for a freeze was a foregone conclusion.”
Tenant advocates also expressed frustration with de Blasio for failing to deliver on his promise of a rent freeze. The mayor appoints members to the RGB, and while he does not have a direct say in the board’s decisions — nor the political liability that would come with it — recent mayors have exerted strong influence on members’ votes. “[De Blasio] had a hand in how much weight he could put on the board to carry out his promise,” said Rachel LaForest, executive director of Right to the City Alliance. “Bloomberg and Giuliani gave directives and those directives got followed. And oftentimes they didn’t waffle on them.”
But despite not winning a freeze this year, some tenants saw the 1 percent increase as a prelude to a future victory. Crown Heights Tenant Union member Donna Mossman called the RGB’s vote a “disappointing” but notable change. “It’s a small victory because one landlord spoke about 6 percent for a one-year lease and 10 percent for a two-year lease. Way more than what they voted for the last time,” Mossman said. “So yes, it is a small victory. But we still need to fight for a 0 percent increase. We will definitely be back next year.”
Alex Ellefson contributed reporting.
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