New York Tenants Demand ‘Rollbacks Not Hikes’ at Rent Guidelines Board Hearing in Brooklyn

Elsie Carson-Holt & Owen Schacht Jun 19, 2023

Ahead of the Rent Guidelines Board’s final vote on June 21, tenants gathered in St. Francis College’s auditorium to make their opposition against proposed rent hikes heard at a Rent Guidelines Board hearing in Brooklyn on Friday. The turnout was massive, with the 300-seat auditorium filling up quickly, causing a line to form around the block. This public hearing, the final in a set of four across the city, provided a platform for residents, tenants and landlords to testify before Wednesday’s vote. Those who testified were primarily tenants, though several supportive members from City Council and the State Assembly spoke as well, including Deborah Glick, Alexa Avilés, Tiffany Cabán, Shahana Hanif, Chi Osse, Rita Joseph and Marcela Mitaynes. “This is a city of renters,” said Hanif, capturing the sentiment in the packed auditorium. 

‘We didn’t vote for this rent increase and we didn’t even vote for the people voting for the rent increase.’

The speakers were diverse and multi-generational, from young children testifying with their parents to elder community members, many of whom had lived in their apartments for decades. Several organizations and tenants associations were in attendance, including Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Churches United for Fair Housing, the United Neighbors Organization, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and Equality for Flatbush, to name just a few. 

Rent Guidelines Board Chair Nestor David was confronted by two of his former students speaking against the proposed rent increases, and sharing how their housing would be seriously impacted if the board went through with the rent hikes.

The Board

The New York Rent Guidelines Board is proposing a maximum increase of 2–5% on one-year leases and 4–7% on two-year leases. These numbers were met with strong opposition by tenants, who are already struggling with the rising cost of living in New York City, inflation and the enduring impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 50% of New York families are rent-burdened, something reflected by the many tenants who testified that one or more of their bi-monthly paychecks went to rent. Many speakers were lifelong New Yorkers and lifelong residents of their neighborhoods. 

Elena Tate, testifying with her young son, Hans, shared how the possible rent hikes would force her and her family to leave their neighborhood of 20 years. “Many of the members of my community garden would have to leave behind the rose bushes we planted and tended to all these years. After all the neighborhood clean ups and block parties we organized, we would have to say goodbye to the great willow tree we watered and watched grow tall. And children like my son would have to leave their schools, say goodbye to their friends and teachers, pack up their toys, and clean their rooms one last time,” Tate said. 

In a bittersweet moment, her son Hans took the stand and proclaimed that “the reason we should not raise the rent is because I love my house.” He followed, inquiring of the audience whether they too loved their homes. Thunderously, renters responded with a resounding “yes!”

Most of those who testified demanded a 0% increase or advocated for a rent rollback, citing increased financial stress. One woman demanded, “How are you going to raise our rent to match inflation, when our paychecks don’t!?” — a point made frequently throughout the testimonies. Despite the significant police presence outside and the heated atmosphere of the room, there was only one altercation, between a landlord couple and a tenant, following which the two landlords were jeered out of the room.

Below are several voices from those who attended Thursday’s meeting.

New York City Councilmember Chi Osse (District 36: Bed-Stuy and North Crown Heights)

I stand before you to testify against increasing the cost of tenants remaining in their homes. Before I start, I want to ask you, is 7% stabilizing? Who’s that stabilizing for? As countless tenants will tell you this evening, we New Yorkers are suffocating under skyrocketing living costs. The proposed increases could be the breaking point. 

Let’s be clear on the severity of what this means. Increasing rents will break homes, it will shatter stability for working families, it will drive New Yorkers out of the neighborhoods they have called home for generations, it will make people homeless. Let’s not take that lightly. Driving families into homelessness is an act of violence that will permanently traumatize children. It will ruin lives and lead to early death, and it’s a choice. This board has a unique power to throw millions of New Yorkers a lifeline. Families in this city make agonizing choices between food and health care, because their last dollar each month is swallowed by rent. 

This board can make an easy choice and say increasing homelessness is too high a price to just pay to make corporate landlords a little bit richer. The landlords here are speaking in bad faith. We know this is bad faith, because even in years of historically low inflation, even in years in which costs remain flat, even in years increased rents means only increased profits, they come before the board insisting they need maximum increases. This isn’t about inflation, it’s about greed. Just as they do every single year, landlords arrive before this board looking to squeeze tenants for the last drop. The renters testifying here today are committing an act of self-defense. 

In the question between enriching corporate landlords and keeping children and families in their own homes, let’s understand that one option is violence and the other is survival. Now I ask this board to spare New York families from the threat of homelessness; I ask you to recognize the desperation of the people in this room struggling to keep their heads above water. The consequences of this decision are dire. We need you to make the right one and keep the rent down, not only that but we need rent rollbacks in the city of New York.

Imani, organizer with Equality for Flatbush

[Equality for Flatbush] started as a response to the rents going up in our community. We have one of the highest rates of evictions out in Brooklyn itself,  in New York City in general. And so we’ve fought displacement, because even personally, I’ve moved about nine times and lived in a neighborhood for 20 years. We’ve watched our neighborhood being rebranded. We’re watching made-up names, but what keeps happening is the people that have lived there, the people that make it historical are moving or being forced out. And this is permanent displacement. It’s not like we can move to East New York or Canarsie, or even the Flatlands [because even those places] are still unaffordable … Our thing is about fighting the displacement and the systemic racism and white supremacy that is leading to our people being displaced. But the main piece of this is that no one can afford [the rent hikes]. Even if it’s 2%, 1%. That is still a hardship for so many people in New York. We can’t afford to pay any more rent. We want to live our lives. We can’t afford any kind of increase. We need a rollback. It has to happen.”

Rena Yehuda, freelance editor and illustrator; Crown Heights

I’m here to stand in solidarity with my neighbors, as well as myself and my housemates. But also, I’m a transgender artist, and I am part of a community of transgender artists in the city. And my entire news feed every single day is requests for mutual aid, largely, from all sorts of different transgender performers, with transgender performers of color being primarily affected by the ways in which inflation has made food more expensive, housing more expensive. And I look and I see the people who I love most struggling all the time — constantly — and then this happens when the economy and the job market is so terrible, and people are really, really struggling. I’m here to show out to this because none of us deserve to be struggling this much. And the job of the government at this time is actually to protect residents of the city. Not to make it harder for us to live here.

Camille, a teenage tenant

Today I stand before you as a 16-year-old, a representation of all teens in the city of New York. I come to you to not only ask, but demand a no rent increase this year. First and foremost, I want us all to acknowledge that housing is a fundamental right. It is a basic necessity that everyone should have access to and be able to afford. With a rent increase we jeopardize this fundamental human right, pushing people towards homelessness or forcing us to live in inadequate conditions. Is the homeless rate not enough? 

Not all of us have the privilege to pay for a rent increase, especially during this time of inflation that we’re living in. Food has gone up, bills have gone up, basic at-home necessities have gone up, and what now? Rent might be going up too? 

We have to stop this. I have to stop seeing my parents argue about whether or not there is enough money on the table. I have to stop draining myself with the thought that I might not be able to finish my high school years…. No teen should be burdened with this, but the reality is many are. I have friends who have quit school to turn their lives into nine-to-five jobs, just to be able to support their parents with money. Just imagine how many more teens would have to go through this exact path with a rent increase. Teens shouldn’t have to go through this; they shouldn’t have to change their lives in order to help out their parents. They belong in school and should be only worried about their education and not financial problems that will be caused by a rent increase. Therefore, I, as a teen, implore you that there should be no rent increase this year.

Natalia, member of 1834 Caton Tenants United and the Party for Socialism and Liberation

We didn’t vote for this rent increase and we didn’t even vote for the people voting for the rent increase. It’s 2.4 million tenants that are rent stabilized in New York City and nine people who are unelected are deciding our rent increases. That’s ridiculous.

I’m not here to address the RGB; they don’t represent me. I don’t vote for them. I barely know who they are. I am there to talk to fellow tenants and see how we can build together, because at the end of the day, whether the rent goes up or it goes down, if the rent freezes, if the rent decreases, landlords can actually absorb a lot of that. 

But what actually keeps landlords up at night is tenants organizing, so that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to talk to tenants and build a movement. … I’ve woken up several times in the middle of the night because there are cockroaches in my bed and people get water shut-offs, they get hot water shut-offs, they get cold water shut offs, people’s ceilings have caved in. I think that if you let your tenants live like that it’s a crime and I think that you should be prosecuted in a court of law, so that’s what we’re going to do.

Alexa Avilés, City Councilmember (District 38: Red Hook, Sunset Park, Greenwood Heights and portions of Windsor Terrace, Dyker Heights, and Boro Park)

After a year where our community saw unprecedented increases to the cost of living across the board, including food and utilities with no corresponding wage increases, for the Rent Guidelines Board to consider rent hikes ranging as high as 7% is egregious and worse, cruel. 

The landlords across this city are in the business of renting precisely because of their ability to make a profit. So I have no sympathy when the specter of a thinning profit margin is raised, especially when compared to the tenants who have faced double-digit increases in evictions, which is sure to rise with yet another rent hike from the RGB. I especially shed no tears for landlords when it is my office that hundreds of tenants from our district and other districts have sought help from when landlords, despite rent increases, have not made the necessary repairs or provided basic maintenance. 

We have a board that is transparently stacked by City Hall. Let me be clear that destabilizing nearly one million households is contrary to any supposed plan on behalf of this administration to tackle the housing crisis in this city and to alleviate the current burden on our shelter system. I urge this board to keep our neighbors housed, to not fan the flames of income inequity simply to maintain profit margins to the decimal, and to give New Yorkers a moment to breathe after a year of staggering increases. 

Please reject these increases. Keep one million New Yorkers in stable and secure housing. If there ever was a time for a rent rollback, this is it. … We have to make hard choices everyday in this city. We need this board to not only make a hard choice, but to do the right thing!

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