As rent-regulated tenants and landlords gear up for the annual spring circus known as the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) hearings, they can expect to face two new members.
Late last month, without much fanfare, Mayor Bloomberg appointed attorneys Leslie Wright and Jonathan Kimmel to replace architect Martin Zelnick, who was not reappointed, and attorney/consultant Elizabeth Luskin, who resigned at the end of her term.
The RGB was first established as an independent agency in 1980 to decide annual allowable rent adjustments for the roughly one million rent stabilized apartments in New York City. It is comprised of nine members: five representatives of the general public [which included Zelnick and Luskin], and two members each representing tenants and landlords.
So what do these changes mean to tenants, landlords and the RGB itself? And why was Zelnick dismissed by the mayor? The answers depend on whom you ask.
Local tenant activists are lamenting the loss of Zelnick. “He was very human so he saw the human side” of people’s stories, said Michael McKee, treasurer of TenantsPac, a political organization dedicated to electing Democrats to the New York State Senate.
Zelnick, who had served on the board since 2003, received a letter from the mayor in March telling him his services would no longer be required. “The [RGB] has benefited greatly from your input and participation during the past three years,” he wrote. “I have recently appointed someone to succeed you on the board, and I wanted to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to you for giving so generously of your time.”
Zelnick, who described his removal as “involuntary,” wasn’t convinced by the mayor’s kind words. “Over the years, the RGB has been formulated in such a way that it is almost inevitable that there are [rent] increases for the owners. The tenant equation appears to not be truly considered equitably,” observed Zelnick in an email. “That is what I was trying to do. I think that approach ruffled feathers. You can draw your own conclusions about whose feathers: Was it one bird or an entire flock? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Indeed, Zelnick was often lauded for his objectivity and thoughtfulness. He came “to the RGB with an open mind and an open heart,” said Terry Poe, tenant organizing supervisor at the Goddard Riverside West Side SRO Law Project, who escorted Zelnick on a tour of several single-room-occupancy hotels.
Seeing the dismal living conditions “was something of an awakening” for him, Poe said, and Zelnick urged the other public members to vote in favor of a rent-freeze for SRO tenants. The measure passed in 2005, much to the ire of RGB chair, Marvin Markus, who called it a “nonsensical policy that penalizes the people living by the rules.”
Zelnick suspects that Markus or local landlords might have influenced the mayor’s decision. “My experience with the mayor was that he was totally hands off … there was never ever any influence,” said Zelnick. “I’m convinced Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t know why he sent me the non-renewal letter … He doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall.”
The mayor’s office disputed that suggestion in an email. “It seems to me that these “observations”…are aimed at distorting Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment and work in the area of building and preserving affordable housing for the next generation of New Yorkers,” wrote spokesperson Paul Elliott.
Regarding Zelnick’s dismissal, in a separate email, Elliott wrote, “Mayor Bloomberg considered candidates for vacated and expired seats … And the Mayor recently made appointments to the board based on his judgment that these new individuals and reappointments are professionals best positioned to serve.”
As for the new members, “no one knows exactly who they are or how they’ll perform,” observed Jenny Laurie, director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing.
Laurie, along with other tenant representatives, recently met with Kimmel and Wright. “They seemed to be fair, pleasant and open-minded,” she said.
“I take the job very seriously, and I have no particular bent or position,” said Wright. “I have a lot to learn.”