R.G.B. must vote for a rent rollback this time

At last year's Rent Guidelines Board vote in The Cooper Union's Great Hall, R.G.B. members, above, heard it from tenants who were demanding a rent rollback. But the board instead voted for a rent freeze for one-year lease renewals. Photo by The Villager
At last year’s Rent Guidelines Board vote in The Cooper Union’s Great Hall, R.G.B. members, above, heard it from tenants who were demanding a rent rollback. But the board instead voted for a rent freeze for one-year lease renewals. Photo by The Villager

On Tuesday, 20 members of the New York City Council wrote to the Rent Guidelines Board, urging them to support a rent rollback at their final vote this Mon., June 27, at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Hall of The Cooper Union in the East Village.

We were glad to see that among the letter’s 20 signers were all of the local councilmembers in The Villager’s coverage area, Margaret Chin, Corey Johnson, Rosie Mendez and Dan Garodnick.

We’re heartened by this strong outpouring of support for a rent rollback — and not just a rent freeze. Because by now, as well all know, so many New Yorkers are, by definition, “rent burdened,” meaning they are paying far too much of their monthly income toward their rent. And this reality cuts right to the heart of the city’s affordability crisis: In short, as former mayoral candidate and East Villager Jimmy McMillan put it so well, the rent is too damn high.

And this isn’t just opinion, the rent really is too damn high. It’s backed up by the data. Three, four and five years ago — even during the depths of the financial crisis — the R.G.B. repeatedly rubber-stamped rent increases based on exaggerated projections of landlords’ operating expenses.

But now, under progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio and an R.G.B. composed entirely of his appointees, the board has been taking a hard look at the data and finding that rent increases aren’t warranted. For example, this past year, even though property taxes went up, fuel costs actually dropped steeply, lowering landlords’ operating expenses.

In fact, because of the unjustified increases that landlords had been receiving over the years, what is now warranted is not just freezing rents, but lowering them — as in, a rent rollback.

In May, the R.G.B. set a preliminary range for its recommendations on how it would vote, which has then been followed by a series of public hearings around town to gather input from the public.

The board’s proposed recommendations this year call for 1-year increases for rent-regulated apartments to be somewhere in the range of between 0 percent to 2 percent and 2-year leases to be between 0.5 percent to 3.5 percent. In fact, these are the same as last year’s recommendations, which resulted in a historic rent freeze for one-year renewals and a 2 percent increase for two-year renewals.

Last year was the first rent freeze in the nearly 50-year history of the R.G.B. The year before, the board recommended a 1 percent increase for one-year renewals, which was the lowest ever at that point.

Monday’s vote will impact the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments, which house close to 3 million New Yorkers, or nearly 36 percent of the city’s entire population.

De Blasio has, thankfully, made the affordability crisis an absolute cornerstone of his administration, and he pledged when campaigning to have a rent freeze. It’s long overdue after 20 years of mayors — Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg — who were unsympathetic to the plight of New York City renters. At the same time, the state Senate, led by Upstate G.O.P. members, has pushed laws over the past two decades that have severely eroded rent protections in New York City, such as adding vacancy decontrol and luxury decontrol caps — points at which, when a rent reaches a certain level, apartments can be removed from rent regulation. In short, the city is hemorrhaging affordable units due to these anti-tenant measures.

To his credit, Harvey Epstein, a former chairperson of Community Board 3 who is now on the R.G.B., along with the board’s other tenant representative, did recommend a rent rollback, of -4 percent for one-year lease renewals and -2 for two-year renewals. Meanwhile, the board’s two landlord representatives, not surprisingly, voted against a rent freeze. However, a majority of the board — its remaining five members, including its chairperson — voted for the current proposed recommended ranges.

Meanwhile, Met Council on Housing, a leading tenant advocacy organization, says what is justified by the numbers is actually a far steeper rollback — as much as one-third of current rents.

Some say, though, it’s unlikely that the R.G.B. will vote for a rent rollback — that the recommended ranges determine their final vote. But then what are the public hearings for? In short, the R.G.B. is not bound by their preliminary recommendations.

More to the point, the New York City Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 was enacted specifically because of “sharp increases” in rents that were jeopardizing New Yorkers’ right simply to enjoy a tolerable standard of living.

Specifically, the 1969 act was passed “to prevent exactions of unjust, unreasonable and oppressive rents and rental agreements and to forestall profiteering, speculation and other disruptive practices tending to produce threats to the public health, safety and general welfare.”

With so many city residents paying more than 30 percent of their rent — the state’s official definition of “rent burdened” — it is high time to rectify the situation. Landlords are currently making 40 cents profit on every dollar of rental income. That is far more profit than most businesses make. Meanwhile, tenants are suffering tremendously as a result of unaffordable rents that are eating up too much of their income, leaving them unable to save anything or barely afford anything else. A rent freeze is great. But nothing less than a rent rollback is what lower- and middle-class New Yorkers desperately need to restore the baseline quality of life that they have lost in a city that increasingly is geared toward the needs of the wealthy elite.

The R.G.B. will hear it loud and clear — “Roll-back! Roll-back!” — from tenants at Cooper Union on Monday. The call will be even more thunderous than last year. The board must heed them.

A rent rollback is the only way to keep New York from spiraling further into unaffordability. We are all suffering under unjustifiedly high rents. The R.G.B. must help start to end the suffering, and must follow the law of 1969 — roll back rents and protect tenants’ right to live without the crushing burden of excessively high rents. Roll-back! Roll-back!