Rent board grants six-month rent freeze, then 1.5% hike

Landlords say hike won’t cover expenses; tenants say they can’t afford it

From left: RGB chair David Reiss, tenant board member Leah Goodridge and RSA's Joe Strasburg
From left: RGB chair David Reiss, tenant board member Leah Goodridge and RSA's Joe Strasburg

A raucous gathering for the Rent Guidelines Board vote Wednesday night showed no proposal on the docket could have satisfied either landlords or tenants after their year of trauma.

The board voted 5-4 to freeze stabilized rents for the first six months of one-year leases beginning on or after Oct. 1, 2021, then raise them 1.5 percent for the next six months. By the same margin, it voted to raise rents on two-year leases by 2.5 percent. The board also voted 7–2 to freeze rents on stabilized hotels.

Alex Schwartz, the public board member who introduced the proposal, branded it a compromise.

“This proposal is intended to provide additional time for economic recovery before any rent increase goes into effect,” said Schwartz. “The proposed 1.5 percent increase allows rental income to cover operating costs and, at a minimum, help keep up with inflation.”

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But “no” votes from owner and tenant representatives showed the proposal fell short of both goals.

Tenant advocate Sheila Garcia, flanked by a swarm of rent-hike protesters and equipped with a megaphone, said six months didn’t offer unemployed tenants enough time to find jobs, ignored the eviction moratorium’s pending expiration and assumed the troubled rent relief program would “work out.”

She chided board members for assuming tenants could tolerate even a minimal rent increase.

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“Can you afford a $10 increase?” Garcia asked the crowd.

“Hell no!” the crowd called back.

Owner representatives had proposed a 2.75 percent hike on one-year leases to cover the rising costs of maintenance, insurance and property taxes. Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners of rent-stabilized buildings, called it “incomprehensible” that the board would ignore its own data-backed recommendations, which called for a 2 percent hike on one-year leases. (Approved increases are routinely below the staff’s calculated figure.)

Despite the disappointment, comments from both parties ahead of the vote suggested that no proposal could provide the relief needed after the past year.

A spokesperson for the Rent Stabilization Association conceded before the vote that the board would not approve a hike large enough to match the rising costs of labor, maintenance and insurance — which the board staff pegged at 3 percent year-over-year.

“Regardless of what they enact, it’s still going to be inadequate and will do nothing to cover the burdens that owners have faced,” said the spokesperson, Vito Signorile.

And while tenant groups had called for another rent freeze — by way of a “What do we want? When do we want it?” chant — a tenant representative, Leah Goodridge, admitted even that would not satisfy renters.

“The rent freeze — even though it’s tremendously hard to get the board to do — a lot of tenants see it as a win, but a moderate win,” said Leah Goodridge, tenant attorney at Mobilization for Justice. “People would say, okay, but I still have to pay rent — like, this isn’t a win.”

The final minutes of the meeting played out in cacophony. Chair David Reiss voiced his justification for the vote as Goodridge’s lasting “What do we want?” cries cut through his speech — a two-in-one that served no one.