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N.Y. / REGION
Renters Hope for Promised Freeze as de Blasio
Prepares to Fill Guidelines Board
By MIREYA NAVARRO
MARCH 9, 2014
For years, tenants have complained that the city board that sets rents for about
one million New York apartments has favored landlords.
Now those tenants are counting on the new mayor to make good on a
campaign promise: the board’s first rent freeze. As mayor, Bill de Blasio appoints
the nine members of the Rent Guidelines Board, which decides each year how
much regulated rents will increase.
With rent laws in the hands of the governor and the state legislators, the rent
board is one of the few levers the mayor has to directly influence the rental market
in the city. It is a priority for Mr. de Blasio, who has made housing a centerpiece
of his effort to ease the economic strains facing so many poor and working-class
New Yorkers.
Mr. de Blasio can fill five of the board’s nine seats now and the remaining
four in December, and his first picks could come as early as this month as the
board prepares for its annual decision on rent increases.
The board’s first scheduled meeting is March 27 and the vote on rents usually
comes in June. The meetings leading up to the vote are typically raucous, with
tenants and their advocates letting board members know exactly how they feel
with jeers, boos, chants and plastic whistles. But this year could be different,
tenant groups said.
“This is a real possibility, and Mayor de Blasio is the one to make it happen,”
Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a
tenants’ rights group, said of a rent freeze. “He understands that there are so
many stabilized tenants that would be past the breaking point if there’s another
increase.”
Since his days as a city councilman, Mr. de Blasio has been a vocal proponent
of freezing increases for tenants of apartments subject to rent regulation. During
the mayoral primary campaign last year, he renewed his call for no rent increases,
as did his Democratic rivals, saying that “at a time when nearly half of our city’s
residents are living in or near poverty, we cannot continue to put additional
financial burdens on poor and working New Yorkers.”
Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said administration
officials were reviewing the rent board’s appointees and “seeking balanced
candidates who understand the needs of low- and moderate-income tenants.”
“We plan to undertake an ambitious agenda that confronts the affordability
crisis facing the city’s tenants,” he said in a statement.
The Rent Guidelines Board, established in 1969, has never forgone a rent
increase. Last year, it allowed increases of up to 4 percent for one-year lease
renewals and up to 7.75 percent for two-year leases.
But the board manages to make no one happy. Landlords complain that rent
increases cover less than half of the actual cost of operating their units, which
includes property taxes, utilities, labor and insurance.
Jack Freund, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a
landlord trade group, said landlords were hopeful that Mr. de Blasio did not
mean what he has said.
“We hope it was campaign rhetoric,” he said. “I’d expect him to appoint
people who are knowledgeable and, if they are knowledgeable, I don’t think you’d
get a zero-rent guideline.”
The board’s composition is meant to strike a middle ground. It is made up of
two tenant representatives, two landlord representatives and five members from
the general public with at least five years of experience in housing, finance or
economics. They serve two- to four-year terms, except the chairman, who serves
at the pleasure of the mayor.
Board members are supposed to consider both landlords’ costs and tenants’
ability to pay. But there is enough wiggle room for an appointee’s bent to make a
difference.
Tenant groups argue that the board has overestimated landlords’ costs by
using a price index that some years outpaces the actual expense statements
provided by the property owners. A coalition of 13 advocacy groups said in a letter
to Mr. de Blasio last month that the board “has for too long become a mechanism
for rent increases, no matter the data, no matter the economic climate.”
Owners counter that the index does not take into account all maintenance
costs or new city mandates like a recent requirement for devices to prevent
backflow from contaminating water systems.
A shift in the board’s dynamics would come at a time when poorer rentstabilized tenants in particular are struggling to pay their rents. Research by the
board’s staff members shows that half of stabilized households pay more than 35
percent of their income in rent and utilities, or above the federal affordability
standard of 30 percent. But Mr. Freund argued that rents cannot be based on
affordability.
“The problem of affordability is not that rents are too high, but that the
incomes are too low,” he said. The median gross rent for stabilized apartments
was $1,160 in 2011.
Harvey Epstein, a tenant representative on the board and an associate
director of the Urban Justice Center, which litigates on behalf of tenants, said he
was asked by administration officials in late February if he would like to be
reappointed and he said yes.
Mr. Epstein, whose term expired in December, noted other areas in the state,
like Westchester County and Nassau County on Long Island, have passed rent
freezes in recent years and now there was an opportunity to do the same in New
York City.
Still, serving on the board may remain a thankless task.
“It’s a tough position to fill,” Mr. Freund said. “It’s not fun to be yelled at by
everybody.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 10, 2014, on page A17 of the New York edition with the
headline: Renters Hope for Promised Freeze as de Blasio Prepares to Fill Guidelines Board.
© 2014 The New York Times Company
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