Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the New York Times that housing issues were now a priority for his administration. The issue, he said, was crowded out of the top of the list when he first took office because the city was facing a huge budget deficit and reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11.
The cost of housing and homelessness are linked and the mayor’s new sense of urgency was reflected in a flurry of recent announcements on housing. In about a week’s span in April he announced a pledge, with City Comptroller William Thompson, to put $130 million of Battery Park City Authority revenues in a trust fund for affordable housing and announced plans to spend $472 million on supportive housing, $27 million on a renovation and rehabilitation project in the Bronx, and two initiatives to redevelop land in Brooklyn.
With all the focus on housing issues, however, he somehow missed one that is making headlines in all of the newspapers: The Rent Guidelines Board, which is deliberating on whether and how much to raise rents on close to a million apartments in the city. Advocates see it as a curious omission.
“The mayor has to take a position on this,” said Michael McKee of Tenants and Neighbors. “How long can he fail to utter the words â€rent stabilization’?”
At a press briefing after the board held its first vote on a rent increase â€“ setting a range for increases on one- and two-year leases â€“ the mayor again sought to distance himself from the board’s deliberations, staking out middle ground between tenants and landlords.
“Any raises will obviously be too much for tenants,” Bloomberg said. “Any raises will obviously be too little for landlords.”
The board voted 5-4 on the ranges: 2 to 4.5 percent increases for one-year leases and 4 to 7 percent on two-year leases. But it was the preliminary vote. Now, tenants will try to convince the public members to vote for lower rents and landlords will try to convince them to go for higher rents.
“It has nothing to do with the numbers and anybody who thinks it does, does not understand the Rent Guidelines Board,” McKee said. “It’s all about politics.”
McKee was referring to the board staff’s reports that reported increases in landlords’ costs at about six percent. While landlords’ costs have gone up, though, the economic situation for most New Yorkers has not markedly improved and, in fact, for many it has gotten worse. More people are spending more of their income on rent, real wages have fallen, homelessness is at record highs, and the number of people on public assistance has increased for the first time since 1993.
The mayor could and should act to prevent another increase in rents, advocates said, because of the affordability problems New Yorkers are facing. At a mayoral candidates’ forum in April, all of his Democratic opponents said they supported a rent freeze.
But Bloomberg apparently is not openly going to pressure the board.
“Well I didn’t tell them how to vote,” he said at the press briefing.
Marvin Markus, the chairman of the Rent Guidelines Board, said he did, however, consult with City Hall on the board’s deliberations.
“They’re interested in the economic impact,” Markus said after the preliminary vote. “I talk to them. I don’t talk directly to the mayor, but I talk to his people, yes.”
The board’s deliberations were considerably more heated than last year â€“- one man was arrested at the meeting for the preliminary vote and the start of the meeting itself was delayed for 30 minutes by frenzied protests. And tenant advocates are convinced that after more than three decades of rent increases, a rent freeze is a real possibility, even after the 5-4 vote for the range of increases.
“Additional public members have started to understand that affordability is an issue,” McKee said. But, he said, tenants have to make their voices heard at the board’s hearings in June before its final vote on June 21 to achieve a rent freeze.
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.