Rent board bucks de Blasio’s call for a freeze


BY ZACH WILLIAMS  |  City landlords scored a political victory Monday night, even as the Rent Guidelines Board voted to enact the smallest rent increase in the history of the city’s rent-stabilization program.

Hopes were high before the meeting that a historic rent freeze would win approval, especially after Mayor de Blasio reiterated his support earlier that day. The board instead approved a 1 percent increase for one-year leases and a 2.75 percent increase for two-year leases by a 5-to-4 margin. The new rates will take effect this Oct. 1.

Board members accused each other of political bias and intellectual disingenuous. In the end, R.G.B. public member Steven Flax — a de Blasio appointee — countered expectations by casting the deciding vote in favor of the increases. He accused board members who represent the interests of building owners of appropriating his proposal through duplicitous means.

“I’ve had intense pressure from both the right and the left, some of it dirty some of it principled,” he said. “I gotta vote my conscience. This is my proposal. I apologize, but I vote in favor of the motion.”

Raucous audience members in the Great Hall of The Cooper Union were not happy. Dozens quickly swarmed in front of the stage, but a small squad of security men in suits quickly formed a defensive line, as board members promptly exited through the rear of the stage.

Advocates of raising rents said that not doing so would endanger rent-stabilized housing over all by depriving owners of sufficient funds to maintain facilities and pay increasing costs of labor, taxes and utilities.

R.G.B. board member Magda Cruz, a partner at real estate law firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, said the proposal for a “radical” rent freeze would “completely ignore the evidence” of landlords’ burdensome costs, in favor of political motivations and the “financial pressures faced by some tenants.” Keeping rents at current levels would “exasperate housing inequality,” she argued.

Supporting rent increases strengthens the rent-regulation program by keeping affordable housing profitable for building owners who would otherwise operate at a loss, added David Wenk, a public member of the board. He said that proponents of a rent freeze were misdirecting their efforts.

“I think the process is really broken down here,” he said. “Our intellectual rigor, I think, has been sidestepped by selective use of data, leaps of logic that turn a blind eye to those facts which don’t support the political agenda.”

Rent-freeze supporters, though, argued that prior board decisions had jacked up rents so much that the time had come to give tenants relief. Prior estimates of increased costs on landlords were too high, yet were approved anyway, charged Sheila Garcia, an R.G.B. tenant member.

“We keep ignoring one important increase, which is that year after year even they didn’t merit increases, they got them,” she said of landlords, speaking before the vote. “As much as [landlords] try to ignore it, tenants’ plight is just as important in this conversation.”

After the vote, tenant advocates expressed dismay that their best chance in recent years to secure a rent freeze had failed. Brandon Kielbasa, an organizer with the Cooper Square Committee, said another year of rent increases disappoints him, but the fight will continue next year when the board votes again.

“Not what we wanted at all here,” he said.

Experiences in recent decades and during the civil rights movement inspire Ernest Russell, a Lower East Side native, to view rising rents as just one more indication of a wider threat to longtime residents, people of color and the elderly. The playing of an unofficial New York City anthem as dozens of activists demonstrated in front of the stage after the vote indicated a lack of respect toward those with more radical political inclinations, he added.

“I really believe the icing on the cake was when they put on the song ‘New York, New York,’ ” he said. “This wasn’t a party, and they disappointed the people. Everybody’s disappointed. And then they put that song on. That’s what they think of us,” he said.

“There’s a lot of contempt, particularly in  the Lower East Side. It’s a progressive, radical neighborhood and this is a way to destroy it, and they damn near destroyed it. They’re bringing in people without the values which we had down there.”