In a 7-2 vote on June 29, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board approved their first ever rent-freeze in the board’s 46-year history. The freeze will apply to one-year rent-stabilized leases, while rents on two-year leases will increase by 2 percent. The decision will affect the nearly one million units of rent-stabilized housing throughout the city.
Inside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, as hundreds of city residents made their way into the meeting, tenant groups led chants and held up signs demanding a rent rollback. For these crowds, the proposal for a freeze from RGB tenant member Sheila Garcia, was, initially, a slight disappointment. Several groups began chanting, "Rollback! Rollback!" in response, but the significance of the proposal soon sank in.
"Today we take a stand and say, a zero is a huge victory," said RGB tenant member Harvey Epstein, to cheers from the room, which erupted in celebration once the vote was finalized.
For many tenants and activists, the vote was a culmination of years of advocacy for a freeze, if not a rent reduction. “It’s a historic victory for tenants that’s been so long in the making,” said Katie Goldstein, Executive Director of the city-wide tenant group, Tenants & Neighbors. “Last year we also expected it, so we were nervous, but this is really amazing. It will provide a lot of much-needed relief for our members."
Manhattan tenant Nina Sills, who has been living in her Upper West Side apartment for 40 years, reflected, "Finally, somebody saw justice. You can't let the landlords get what they want every year, the tenant needs to live."
For Flatbush resident Jean Folkes, the decision was a "reprieve" from the widespread disappointment among many city tenants with the failure in Albany to reform state rent laws before their four-year extension.
Though, leading up to the vote, Mayor De Blasio was less vocal in his support of a rent freeze than he was last year, he did praise the decision in a statement released on Monday.
"I applaud the Rent Guidelines Board for making tonight's decision based on hard data, including the unprecedented 21 percent drop in fuel costs over this past year," he said. "We know tenants have been forced to make painful choices that pitted ever-rising rent against necessities like groceries, childcare and medical bills. Today's decision means relief."
In making the decision, the board consulted the Price Index of Operating Costs report, through which they found that while landlords' operating incomes have increased consistently over the past nine years, in the past year operating costs grew by a surprisingly low 0.5 percent, which can mostly be attributed to, as the Mayor stated, a drop in fuel costs.
RGB Chair Rachel Godsil noted that while landlords generally seem to be doing okay, “No matter which statistics we consider, rent stabilized housing remains unaffordable for the majority of tenants living in these units."
Landlord groups, however, felt the decision was politically driven and unrealistic about their needs. Both RGB owner representatives voted against the proposal, with board member Sara Williams Willard commenting, "It's myopic, it's biased, and it's selective listening."
The Community Housing Improvement Program, a group representing owners, released a statement saying, "Today's vote is in no way based in any sort of economic reality and will ultimately stifle investment in our city's most important affordable housing stock and will have a detrimental impact on affordable housing for millions of New Yorkers."
Still, board member Garcia maintains that the data supported the decision to institute a freeze, and would have also supported a rollback, although, she said, the board didn't have the votes to make that happen.
Though the freeze is a big victory for rent-stabilized tenants across the city, some, such as Flatbush resident Maria Hodges, hope that it is not an end point in the struggle to improve the lives of tenants city-wide.
“I think it is a step in the right direction and these things have got to continue," she said. "[But] it cannot be this historic watershed thing. Every year we have got to look for equity, and that’s what we have not had in the past, so this is the beginning step to make things equitable, so I applaud the beginning, but I look for the long-run.”