Before the Rent Guidelines Board voted on the latest rent increases on June 21, housing advocates had spent the year pushing for a rent freezefor the nearly one million apartments in New York City that are rent-stabilized. They thought this might be possible this time around, because of the political calculus involved in an election year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, running for re-election, appoints the members of the board, which are made up of five “public members,” two who represent landlords and two who represent tenants.
It is possible to say that the Rent Guidelines Board came closer than it has ever come to a rent freeze, because, for the first time in the board’s 35-year-old history, one of the five public members of the nine-member board actually voted for a rent freeze.
But ultimately, the Rent Guidelines Board voted 6 to 3 to allow landlords a 2.75 percent increase on a one-year lease and a 5.5 percent increase on a two-year lease. This is close to the low end of what they had been contemplating since April.
Martin Zelnik, the public member who voted for the rent freeze, said he had “no clue” he had made history. Even though the rents were in fact raised, “I think symbolism is important. The public should know that public members are being sensitive to the public’s concerns.”
In discussion of the motion to increase rents, Zelnik said the board’s annual deliberations shortchange tenants in the city because the board does not consider the broader impact of rent increases on tenants.
“The system is inherently unfair to evaluating the tenants’ side,” Zelnik said. “It doesn’t take into account the quality of life costs for tenants. We have heard very, very little about the issues facing tenants,” he said, citing increases in transit fares, college tuition, food and other items as examples.
After the meeting he said he voted for the increase because it was the best he feared that voting “no” could have led to a higher increase. “You try to arrive at the best level you can,” he said. “I was hoping it would be lower, but it could have been higher.”
Zelnik’s stand in favor of a rent freeze won him support among advocates -- but not much.
“It’s so hypocritical of these public members to say we have an affordable housing crisis and we should study this, and then go ahead and vote for an increase,” said Michael McKee of Tenants and Neighbors.
But board members differed on what role the board plays in addressing the crisis.
While Marvin Markus, the board’s chairman, indicated in his remarks at the vote that the board was charged with keeping rents affordable, the board as a whole apparently believes that allowing landlords to recoup increased operating costs trumps tenants’ financial issues. The city’s record level of homelessness did not move one landlord representative, Howard Lubell. Among other arguments, landlords contend that if rents are not increased adequately, they do not have enough money to pay for building repairs and maintenance.
“We have 38,000 homeless people out of 8 million people in New York,” Lubell said after the vote. “That is not solved by creating more distressed housing.”
Days before the vote, housing advocates had promoted a set of provisos that would have ruled out increases in rents for certain rent stabilized apartments. But the provisos, introduced as a “friendly amendment” by Zelnik during the meeting, were flatly rejected by Markus, who deemed them unfriendly.
One proviso would have given a smaller increase in rent on apartments in buildings where 25 percent or more of the apartments had been decontrolled. Rent stabilized apartments can be decontrolled if their rents reach $2,000 and they are vacated, or if they are $2,000 per month or more and the household income is $175,000 or more for two consecutive years.
Markus also deemed “unfriendly” a second Zelnik amendment that would have given owners of buildings with 10 or fewer apartments where an apartment rents for $400 or less a higher increase in rent.
If tenant advocates were left seething at the outcome of the board meeting, an optimist could discern at least one more positive sign. Everyone on the board this year agreed that the city faces an affordable housing crisis. This is a change from the past. A year ago, the board’s chairman flatly said no such crisis existed.
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â