(Photos: Dave Colon)
Despite a boisterous, chanting crowd that filled an auditorium in Cooper Union’s Great Hall and called for a rent freeze or rollback, the city’s Rent Guidelines Board voted to allow 1.5 percent increases on one-year leases and 2.5 percent increases on two-year leases in a narrow 5-4 decision last night.
Like the preliminary vote meeting the Rent Guidelines Board held in April, last night’s meeting was packed with tenants and activists hoping for at least a rent freeze on rent-stabilized apartments, which some said was the only thing between families across the city and homelessness.
“There is one barrier between a lot of us and homelessness: the Rent Guidelines Board,” Fitz Christian a member of CASA, told the crowd before the meeting began. “We who are living in our homes for 30 or 40 years are having a hard time living in our homes. It is a tremendous burden for us and our children. We want a rent rollback so we can live as human beings.”
In addition to speakers like Christian, tenant representative Leah Goodridge made the case for a rent freeze to the crowd and the board before actually introducing her motion. Goodridge pointed to the city’s rising numbers of homeless people and to data that she said showed landlords had actually made over $312,000 per landlord during the rent freeze period compared to $296,000 per landlord in non-rent freeze periods.
“My vote is for tenants struggling to make ends meet when the rent goes up,” Goodridge said before asking the board to vote for a rent freeze. “The tenants who have to decide ‘Should I buy a MetroCard or should I pay my rent? Should I buy food for my child or should I pay my rent?’”
The rent freeze proposal failed 6-3, but only after the 7-2 failure of a loudly booed motion from the landlords’ representatives to tack on a 2 percent increase for one-year leases and a 4 percent increase for two-year leases.
Ultimately, the board approved the 1.5 and 2.5 percent rent increases 5-4, before adjourning the meeting while the crowd chanted “Shame on you” before leaving the Great Hall to continue to rally outside. “It seems to me they were not relying on the testimony we heard from tenants,” Goodridge told reporters after the meeting, accusing the board of putting “profits before people” and refusing to consider the stories of tenants who testified in front of the board at five public meetings through the spring.
However, one of the board’s owner representatives disputed the dichotomy of “people vs. profits.” “The owner’s perspective or at least my perspective is you want to keep enough of an incentive for people to keep the housing in a state of good repair,” owner representative Angela Pinsky told reporters after the vote. “You don’t want to encourage them to look into other options like selling or redeveloping the land.”
In choosing against a rent freeze, Pinsky said the board was looking for the kind of compromise that allowed landlords to avoid “all sorts of market pressures that are pushing them towards other options than keeping an aging building with low-rent tenants” and cast the vote as the best possible scenario for the tenants.
“The most stable place for a lot of the people who came to testify would be in their current apartment in a state of good repair. I think moving around is costly for them, having your building bought and sold is expensive for them,” she said.
Tenant activists, of course, disagreed with that assessment, and promised a political fight. Before the vote itself, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein (who represents an area including Stuy Town, Alphabet City, the East Village and the Lower East Side) exhorted the crowd to vote in the 2018 state legislature elections and to “hold us all accountable, me in the Assembly and all our members” in an effort to repeal the Urstard Law, a long-running campaign by tenants advocates against the law that gives the state authority over rent regulation.
Rolando Guzman, a deputy director for community preservation with the St. Nicks Alliance, also promised tenant organizing would ramp up as the year went along, pointing to the march against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s housing policies held earlier this month as an example of a motivated and mobilized base. “There’s [political pressure] being built already, and this is pressure being built from the base up, from tenant associations and tenants who are being harassed,” he told Bedford + Bowery.
Still, in the moments after the vote, activists and renters couldn’t help but be somewhat discouraged by the board’s vote, which Guzman said amounted to a message of “We don’t care about you.”
“Nobody had a conscience, they’re not thinking about poor people,” Sondra James of the Flatbush Tenants Coalition told Bedford + Bowery outside Cooper Union. “What should we do? Hold our rents and force the landlords to know that we can’t pay it? Build tents around on corners, decorate New York with tents and live in them to show how many homeless people there are?”