Nearly two hours after the Rent Guidelines Board was scheduled to vote on whether more than 1.2 million New Yorkers would be required to pay more for their rent-regulated apartments, the board made a historical decision to freeze rent increases for one-year leases. Amidst intermittent boos and cheers, the board’s chair, Rachel Godsil, announced that for the first time ever one-year leases would see a zero percent increase in rent, while two-year leases would be subject to a 2 percent increase.
The decision came down to a 7-2 vote, with the two owner representatives voting against the rent freeze (the board is composed of five public members, two tenant reps, and two owner reps). Sara Willard, a real estate developer working with Hudson Companies, who was one of two votes against the proposal, looked frustrated as she delivered her explanation to a jeering crowd. “I cannot do the job of public members,” she repeated. “I know this is myopic, it’s biased,” she said, referring to the rent freeze. Her last words were drowned out by boos before she submitted “a resounding ‘No.'”
Prior to the vote, the board seemed to be holding over until the Great Hall at Cooper Union was completely full. The place was nearly empty at 6 pm, save for the quavering, familiar voice of the white-haired old woman who seems to show up to every one of these meetings. She was belting out, “Roll back the rent!” while heads turned to see where the theatrical voice was emanating from. But by 7:30, the room was packed, overflowing with tenants groups chanting and whooping with a mixture of excitement and exasperation.
City Council Member Jumaane Williams could be seen amongst the very vocal tenants, at times taking the lead in various chants including, “Cuomo betrayed us! The RGB can save us!” and “Once I pay my rent, all my money’s spent!” One woman with CASA (Community Action for Safe Apartments) was screaming so hard that sweat was pouring down her face and at one point her voice cracked.
The entire board was appointed by Mayor de Blasio back in 2014, and last summer moved to pass the lowest ever rent hike at 1 percent for one-year leases and 2.75 percent for two-year leases. While the crowd called for rent rollbacks, something the board has been weighing since earlier this year, the board decided that such a decision was impossible to make that night.
Tenant representative Cecilia Joza admitted to a cheering crowd, “The data supports a rent rollback.” But she quickly qualified the popular statement by explaining, “But we cannot have a vote to have that happen tonight.” The crowd quickly turned on her. She explained that the data collected by the RGB shows that landlords are profiting, however, and for that reason a freeze was in order.
The Chair said that while a rollback was understandably justified from the tenants’ point of view, the board’s mandate required that they represent the interests of both tenants and landlords. “The board was urged by many elected officials to roll back the rent. While I understand these arguments, I think it’s important to think about how different owners are situated,” Godsil said. “For small owners particularly, a rollback would challenge their ability to maintain their buildings, and it is our role as a board to protect owners as well as tenants.”
Godsil cited data that indicates rising profits for the real estate industry while showing that tenants are struggling. “Overall, the majority of the owners are fairing well,” she said. “Half of rent-stabilized tenants are paying 36.4 percent of their income for rent and are considered to be rent burdened.” The threshold to be qualified as rent-burdened is 30 percent. “Rent stabilized housing remains unaffordable for the majority of tenants living in these units,” she continued.
After speedily summarizing the data, including numbers that demonstrate owners’ net income has increased by more than 30 percent since 1990, Godsil explained, before submitting her final vote, that a 2 percent increase would be put in place for two-year leases to protect owners from “unanticipated costs.” “In light of this year’s current data, a zero percent increase for one-year leases is appropriate,” she said. “We want the best for this city, and we will look carefully at the data in the years to come and carefully balance the interests. I vote yes.”
While a few boos emitted from the crowd, a couple of people screamed out, “Thank you Rachel!” The crowd burst into cheers and, while filing out of Cooper Union, chanted, “I believe that we can win!”
Mayor de Blasio praised the decision in a press release. “This was the right call. For the first time in the history of the Rent Guidelines Board, more than a million hardworking and hard-pressed tenants will see no increase in their rent. I applaud the Rent Guidelines Board for making tonight’s decision based on hard data,” he stated. “We know tenants have been forced to make painful choices that pitted ever-rising rent against necessities like groceries, childcare and medical bills. Today’s decision means relief.”
The East Village and Lower East Side made a strong showing at the RGB meeting, with tenant organization Good Old Lower East Side in attendance. One of the neighborhood’s City Council members, Margaret Chin, also released a statement applauding the decision of the Rent Guidelines Board. “This historic vote is a welcome relief to the hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized tenants struggling to make ends meet in a city where the costs of living have skyrocketed while wages have remained stagnant. I applaud the Rent Guidelines Board, who by taking this action, have heard the pleas of hard-working New Yorkers.”
The board’s decision came on the heels of new rent laws in Albany’s vote to . With the passing of the bill, vacant apartments will become deregulated once they reach a rent of $2,700, rather than the previous threshold of $2,500. Some had sought an even higher threshold of $3,000 or the outright abolition of the threshold.
The board’s vote comes on the heels of new laws that raise the rent threshold at which a landlord can deregulate an apartment and increase fines for landlords who harass tenants.