All photos by Owen Schacht.
Liu Shu Zhen has been a member of the CAAAV Chinatown Tenants Union for over 20 years, and lived in the same one-bedroom apartment for 10. Since Eric Adams’ mayoral victory, she has seen the largest rent hikes since the Bloomberg era and can no longer afford rent on her fixed income. As she and other concerned tenants settled in last night to watch the Rent Guidelines Board vote on another round of annual rent increases, she said that she will either need to find someone to share her home or face eviction.
“I want a rent rollback,” Liu told The Indypendent. “If we don’t get a rent rollback, I want Eric Adams to step down from office. We’re not going to support him.”
Despite vehement opposition from tenant groups, housing experts and some elected officials, Liu and roughly two million other rent-stabilized New York City apartment dwellers will nonetheless face another annual rent increase, after the RGB voted last night for a 3% increase for one-year leases and a staggered increase for two-year leases where rent can increase by 2.75% in the first year and 3.25% in the second.
Each year, the RGB establishes the lease guidelines for the city’s roughly 960,000 rent-stabilized apartments. The Board is made up of two “tenant members,” two “owner [landlord] members” and five “public members” who are not affiliated with landlord or tenant interests. All nine members are appointed by the mayor. The RGB votes on the guidelines each June after a series of hearings. Those guidelines then apply to leases with effective dates between Oct. 1 of that year and Sept. 30 of the following year. This year, landlord members suggested rent hikes of as much as 8.5% on one-year leases 16% for two-year terms.
There was a tense atmosphere inside Hunter College’s Assembly Hall last night, where the final vote was held. The hearing started late, with tenant member Adán Soltren stalling for time to ensure the 300-400 tenants that had shown up were able to get in the room. They blew whistles, jeered toward the stage and shouted chants as the board went through various proposals. The final 5–4 vote was drowned out with chants of “We’ll be back!” and “Shame!” which went on well after the nine board members had walked off stage. After exiting Assembly Hall, attendees corralled in front of the building, where impassioned tenant leaders took turns speaking through a megaphone about people power and the need to organize more.
Three public members and the two tenant members voted for the adjustment. Before yielding to the ultimate increase, both tenant members, Adán Soltren and Genesis Aquino, brought a motion for a 0% increase for one-year renewals and 2% for two-year renewals, which failed.
“We are just putting more money in the hands of the landlords who do not care about the lives of the people who live in those buildings,” Aquino told The Indy, noting that she and Soltren voted for the increase so that a higher proposal would not pass. Both tenant members expressed their disappointment about the final vote, specifically citing the fact that 39% of rent stabilized homes are severely rent burdened, meaning that more than 50% of their paychecks goes to rent.
William Alicea is one of those tenants. “I’m here as a working-class American. I’m a member of Local 3 [of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. But with these rent increases, it’s making it really hard for me to live in my city,” said Alicea. “I’m spending half of my income just on rent alone. With the increase, I’m going to be spending over half of my income on rent. So then that’s gonna affect how much money I have for food, how much money I have for transportation. If I have any emergencies that are unexpected, I won’t be able to financially recover.”
Standing next to Alicea was Adam Blazej, a resident of Inwood, distributing lemonade with his five year-old son outside Assembly Hall ahead of the vote. When the Blazej family settled into their home four years ago, they were startled to discover that cockroaches and rats had already moved in. “[My son] had nightmares about rats, because of all the rats he would see throughout our building,” Blazej told The Indy. But more so than pests, an open lead violation and two years without hot water have threatened his family’s safety. “Now we’re paying more than we should be for the conditions that we live in,” said Blazej.
During his two terms in office, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s RGB froze rents three times, and hikes never increased more than 1.5% for one-year leases. Also on Wednesday, the RGB in Kingston, NY, responded to a tenant mobilization by voting to freeze rents. Tenants who attended the vote at Hunter College hoped for a similar move, with some demanding a rollback, in the face of the ever-rising cost of living in New York City.
Esteban Girón, an organizer with Crown Heights Tenants Union, explained that “the Rent Guidelines Board is not tasked with choosing the increase, they’re tasked with adjusting the rent to whatever it should be, it doesn’t have to be an increase, it can be a decrease,” he told The Indy. Girón holds Mayor Adams personally accountable for this rent hike and the evictions it will cause, noting that “we’re already making every penny stretch.”
In response to those who might argue that the rent increase is not so drastic, Girón provided a personal anecdote. “It seems like it’s not that much. The increase seems small, but a 0.5% increase for us might mean one less meal that we can eat. We may not do dinner on a particular day. It’s just like that, and we get used to it, and it’s fucked up that we get used to it, because it shouldn’t be that way.”
Despite the hikes, City Councilmember Chi Ossé contends that this vote was a small win due to the role that community organizing played in arriving at the final number. “To any New Yorker, a 2–3% increase is going to hurt. People are already rent-burdened…. But it’s still not going to be as harmful as a 7%, nonetheless, a 16% increase. I really want people to know that them showing up did some damage control. And now we need to continue to show up to reverse the damage that has already been done,” he told The Indy.
Liu echoed Ossé’s sentiments, saying that she and her fellow members of the Chinatown Tenants Union are unhappy with any increase, but consider the lower increase a small win. She also attributes it to the city’s tenant movement. “This year the rent increase is slightly lower than last year,” she told The Indy, through a translator. “But that is only because we as tenants come out every single year and pressure them. This is part of our win. [But] we need to work harder so Adams doesn’t raise the rent again. We can’t afford this.”
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