RGB Rent Hikes ‘Just the Beginning’

Issue 272

Eric Adams’ impact on the Rent Guidelines Board is beginning to be felt.

Steven Wishnia Jul 5, 2022

The city Rent Guidelines Board’s June 21 vote to allow the highest rate increases in nine years is likely an omen of what the rest of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration will bring.

The nine-member board voted 5-4 to let landlords raise rent by 3.25% for a one-year lease renewal and 5% for two years, the largest increases allowed since 2013, Michael Bloomberg’s last year in City Hall. They will affect most of the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments.

“I think this is just the beginning,” longtime tenant activist Michael McKee told the Indypendent. “More of the same and even worse.”

All nine members are appointed by the mayor, and “the first one he’s going to replace,” McKee says, is Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, the only one of the five public members to vote against the increase. His three-year term expires on Dec. 31.

This is NYC’s largest rent increases since the Bloomberg era.

By “forcing the chair to go to one of the landlord members to get the fifth vote,” McKee says, Gonzalez-Rivera violated the RGB’s “charade” of impartiality. In the board’s usual ritual, the public members vote as a bloc to approve their proposed increases by 5-4 with little or no debate, with the two tenant and two landlord representatives opposed. This year, landlord representative Christina Smyth provided the fifth yes vote.

Adams maintains a front of neutrality. “We witnessed renters having to deal with this trauma of financial trauma,” he told reporters the day after the vote, “but we also saw those small property owners, 15 units, 16 units, 9 units… They’re hurting. Oil, water bill, taxes. So we had to find a medium.” In a statement, he also claimed to have been “successful in pushing the increases lower.”’

Not many rent-stabilized apartments are owned by small landlords, though. RGB tenant representative Sheila Garcia said that according to the board’s data, only 1 percent of rent-stabilized landlords own fewer than 10 units. According to an analysis of city ownership data by JustFix, as of 2018, landlords with more than 20 buildings owned more than half of the city’s 2.3 million rental apartments.

Meanwhile, according to data from the city-commissioned 2021 Housing and Vacancy Survey, rent-stabilized tenants have a median household income of $47,000 a year, and pay a median of $1,400 a month—36 percent of their income. Only about one-sixth of rent-stabilized apartments cost less than $900. The city has not yet released more detailed data, but among all renter households making $25,000 to $50,000, 86 percent spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and 44% spent more than half. 

For tenants already overloaded like that, the RGB increases will be significant: roughly $50 to $75 a month on a $1,500 apartment. Mercedes Torres, a 62-year-old widow from Hell’s Kitchen who protested outside the RGB vote, said that although her rent is lower (“more than $600”), her income is about $1,400 a month from Social Security. 

“My son helps me with the rent and food, otherwise I’d be unable to eat,” she said.

McKee says the tenant movement needs to start looking for a primary challenger to Adams for the 2025 election—now. Mayoral influence on RGB decisions is “generally not as blatant” as dictating specific percentages, he says; “it’s an understood thing.” But Adams “thinks like a landlord,” and his talk about the plight of small owners is “completely misleading.”

He says the tenant movement, which for the past few years has concentrated on closing the loopholes in the state’s rent-regulation laws and trying to outlaw evictions without “good cause” in unregulated housing, now needs to work on reforming the RGB process.

The RGB’s tenant representatives were both frustrated. Adán Soltren, appointed by Adams in April, denounced the board during the meeting as “people who believe return on investment deserves more respect than basic human needs.” Garcia, who’s served for nine years, said after the vote that the public members’ professed concern for tenants was “performative.”

Both Soltren and Gonzalez-Rivera said that one public member had been asleep while tenants were testifying at an RGB hearing in Queens June 12.

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