How many landlords does it take to change a lightbulb? Metropolitan Council on Housing volunteer Mary Crosby posed the rhetorical question to members of the Rent Guidelines Board at last night’s public hearing at Cooper Union. “None, because everyone knows landlords don’t do repairs anymore,” she said. Here’s another one for you: how many owners does it take to change a lightbulb? You’ll never guess… it’s also “none,” she said, “because the owners have removed the light sockets during an eviction.”
Of course, the six-hour hearing was no laughing matter. Over 80 tenants, building owners and elected officials testified before the board, which later this month will vote on new rent rates for the city’s hundreds of thousands of rent-regulated apartments. The board is considering proposed increases of 0 to 2% for one-year leases up for renewal between October 1, 2016 and September 30, 2017, and 0.5 to 3.5% for two-year leases.
Most (58) were tenants who testified about inhumane tactics they said their landlords use to drive rent-stabilized tenants out of their apartments so they can qualify for vacancy bonuses. Among the methods cited were the withholding of services, verbal harassment, and bothersome construction. Tenants also complained about flat-out illegal deregulation and the aloof attitude or corrupt actions of legislators in Albany. Some argued that incessant Major Capital Improvement rent increases– used to make up for the cost of new windows, new roofs, and similar building-wide upgrades and repairs– were unjust when landlord operating costs are down and income remains on the rise.
Even with the size and organizational know-how of her Association of Tenants of Lincoln Towers, president Anne Perryman said that they “have been hurt by a pattern of steady, off-the-chart RGB increases combined with weaker rent laws that we know now were cynically, often secretly promoted by corrupt legislators in Albany.”
“The amount of greed that I have witnessed is disgraceful,” said Rob Roth, a Lower East Side artist, of his embattled landlord Steve Croman, who has been accused of pushing out tenants by cutting gas and heat, offering low buyouts, and threatening frivolous lawsuits.
Michael Cavadias, an East Village resident of 25 years, said he didn’t know “how much longer people in this city can live, just knowing they’re not wanted,” and told the board its vote was the “only line of defense, because the legislature is controlled by people from upstate who get a lot of money from the landlords here…the only thing that we have is you.”
Some thanked the board for last year’s historic rent freeze, but once again urged it to go a step further and roll back rent-regulated rates in the face of an affordability crisis. If the board still deemed that an overall rollback would challenge small owners’ ability to maintain their buildings, said one man, “the technology must exist to point out those who need a little bit of help versus those who don’t.”
Self-described small owner Hal Brill, one of 18 owners who attended, used his two minutes of testimony to say that “the system is skewed against all landlords…especially the small landlords,” adding that rents are too low to cover costs like real estate taxes and water rates for his 28 apartments, 18 of which he said are rent-stabilized. “What we need are higher guideline increases now and supplemental increases as well,” Brill insisted.
When RGB tenant member Harvey Epstein asked Brill if his income exceeded his expenses (he responded that it did) and whether he had ever sought permission to increase rents due to personal hardship (he hadn’t), the crowd jeered and Epstein said simply, “Okay, thanks.”
If you were not able to attend any of the public hearings and you would like to provide comment, you can still do so through the RGB website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The RGB votes at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 27 at Cooper Union.