Every year, for the past 41 years, the nine members of the Rent Guidelines Board have gathered to reach a secretive consensus that sets the annual rent increases on rent-regulated apartments at somewhere around 3 percent, a move that without fail earns the ire of tenants and property owners alike.
It is unlikely that the Rent Guidelines Board harbors any illusions about its popularity at this point, but this year looks to bring unprecedented animosity. It’s only April and insults are flying, months before the board inevitably makes its rage-inducing decision.
“We need to move away from the days of a kangaroo court,” shouted City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who took to the steps of City Hall Monday morning to call for reforms to the hated board. “Regardless of the data… the rents go up!”
Speaker Quinn was joined by several other councilmembers, Assembleymen Brian Kavanagh and Richard Gottfried, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and a vocal, sign-waving crowd of tenants and tenant-rights advocates.
Although proposed state legislation won’t necessarily stop the rent from going up, it would change the selection and composition of the Rent Guidelines Board, requiring City Council approval of mayoral appointees and opening up membership to include a broader range of professional backgrounds—urban planning, social services and public policy to name a few (the current requirement is at least five years experience in either finance, economics or housing).
This is not the bill’s maiden voyage, but proponents see an opening, especially with the debate over rent control re-energized by the possible Supreme Court battle over rent regulation (the court may decide whether or not to hear James D. Harmon Jr.’s challenge to rent control in the coming weeks). The case has the possibility to “end rent control as we know it,” City Councilmember Jessica Lappin warned the crowd, especially “given the Roberts court.”
Although the bill would have no effect on this year’s RGB, the season of rent rage is here—the board’s annual vote is looming and with it the prospect of yet another inevitable rent increase, riling the residents’ who are fortunate enough to live in rent-regulated apartments. While no one mentioned it, it seems evident the situation was especially heated given the fact rents are at an all-time high, according to first quarter reports from CitiHabitats—never mind the fact the city is still weathering economic doldrums.
“It’s an extraordinarily important body, not only to tenants who live in those buildings, but to the basic economic future of our city,” said Assemblyman Kavanagh. “As always, the increases of the Rent Guidelines Board should reflect the economic realities of both tenants and landlords… this is a bill we think is ripe to get done now.”
State Sen. Squadron called City Council confirmation of appointees to the “opaque” board “an absolute no-brainer.”
“Let’s empower our local legislative body to have a say in the lives of millions of New Yorkers,” he urged the crowd.
In fact, it turns out that the RGB doesn’t even like itself. Adriene Holder, a tenant member of the RGB for the past 10 years (and the head of the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Practice) also stepped up to the podium to vent her dissatisfaction with the board.
“I’ve seen nothing but increases!” cried Ms. Holder. “Why is it that the last three years, during the worst recession in recent history… we’ve seen unprecedented increases in rent?” (To be fair, this has something to do with the fact that so few people are buying because of the recession, and instead renting in the interim, though no doubt other economic pressures are to blame for rising rents.)
Ms. Holder’s criticism was slight compared to that of Councilman Jumaane Williams, the former executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, who took to the microphone to declare that “The Rent Guidelines Board is a sham. That’s basically what it is.”
Perhaps the Rent Stabilization Association, an association to represents 25,000 property owners and agents responsible for some one million units of housing, would have a kind word for the RGB.
“We would say that the RGB has been overzealous in protecting tenants to the detriment of the housing stock,” said executive vice president Jack Freund when the Observer reached him on the phone. Mr. Freund said that the association would like to see rent increases that reflected the annual price increases.
Well, my enemy’s enemy is my friend and all that. Was Mr. Freund in favor of the proposed reform?
“City Council approval is the kiss of death because you’re not going to have rational, objective people on the board,” Mr. Freund said. “I’m sure they’d be very happy if it was filled with five homeless housing advocates, and that might be more representative, but it wouldn’t fulfill the function of the RGB, which to preserve existing housing stocks by providing the rent increases that are necessary each year to cover the rising costs of taxes.”
Of course! Blame it on the tax man. ‘Tis the season.