RENT BOARD GAINS NEW MEMBERS
AND KEEPS A SURPRISING OLD ONE

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It’s the time of year that rent adjustments are to be set for the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments, the annual ritual in which tenants and owners duke it out at a series of public hearings held by the Rent Guidelines Board.

But at this point, the story – which usually concerns the rancor between the two sides amid cries of financial hardship all around – is actually about who’s sitting on the board itself.

The nine-member mayoral-appointed board is composed of a chair, two members representing tenants, two members representing landlords, and four members representing the public at large.

In March, Mayor Bloomberg appointed three new members: Ronald Languedoc, representing tenants; Magda Cruz, representing owners; and Risa Levine, representing the public. They replace resigning members David Pagan, Harold Lubell, and Gale Kaufman, respectively. But Bloomberg’s office did not publicize the appointments, and the newcomers received little attention.

Instead, it’s the RGB’s controversial chair, Marvin Markus, who has again become the focus. Reappointed to the job in 2002, tenant activists call him “Marvin Markup” because of his previous tenure during the Koch administration, when rents were raised 11 percent for one-year leases and 14 percent for two-year leases.

Double-digit increases are unusual. Last year’s increase – though also presided over by Markus, and considered high by tenants – was notably lower, at 4.25 percent for one-year leases and 7.25 percent for two years.

It was widely believed throughout the tenant activist community that Markus’ reign had finally come to an end, in part prompted by a series of events that transpired at several public hearings last year. His “extreme disrespect” towards tenants, in the words of Tenant and Neighbors rent regulation organizer Natasha Winegar, motivated around 100 rent-regulated residents to write to Bloomberg complaining about Markus’s demeanor and demanding his removal.

In early December, letters were sent by the administration to many of these residents stating, “Marvin Markus no longer serves as Chair of the RGB.”

Because of that, “I was flabbergasted” to just recently learn Markus still holds the post, said Jenny Laurie, director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “We’d heard from several people in the Bloomberg administration that he was definitely not going to be the chair … though we didn’t know the lineup.”

Bloomberg press secretary John Gallagher said Markus “informed us he planned to leave, and then reconsidered.”

Tenant activists are discouraged by Markus’ return because of how they say he runs the board: with an iron fist. “The public members follow him like sheep,” Winegar said. Laurie says some members “are afraid of him.”

Former public member Martin Zelnik, who was not reappointed in 2006 – after, according to him, he displayed some independence – wrote in an email, “I think that it is critical that whomever the Mayor appoints is fair, objective, and looks at both sides – and is not easily intimidated.”

Tenant organizations went so far as to send the mayor a letter last week complaining about the reappointment for several reasons, including Markus’ “rude, condescending, arrogant, and high handed” behavior towards tenants.

On a more technical point, they contend that since Markus employs a novel system of proposing rent hike ranges instead of specific numbers, he “undermines the spirit of notice and comment embodied in the City Administrative Procedures Act, and in administrative law in general. The public cannot effectively comment on a moving target.”

In addition to the Markus drama this spring, the board will be contending with the dynamics of three new members. Because Languedoc and Cruz each represent specific interests, their roles are not really in question, but their personalities could make things interesting.

Jack Freund, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, had praise for new owners’ representative Cruz. She is a former appellate lawyer and a partner at one of the city’s biggest landlord firms, Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman. Cruz is “knowledgeable … right out of the gate, she was a proven master of highly technical information,” Freund said, referring to the discussion at last week’s meeting about the 2007 Price Index of Operating Costs report and the 2007 Income and Expense Study. Those are two of the analyses the RGB staff produces to aid board members in their deliberations.

Winegar worried that Cruz would be “a lot more cunning than she allows … she will be incredibly effective; she’ll be a much stronger ally than her [predecessor],” Harold Lubell, who was considered to be a pretty staunch landlord advocate in his time.

Winegar was enthusiastic about the new tenant representative, Ron Languedoc, who has been a housing attorney for 25 years and is currently co-director of the housing law unit at South Brooklyn Legal Services. “He’s going to be excellent. He asked great questions that were in depth and needed to be asked.”

In interviews with Cruz and Languedoc, both said they believe strongly that to calculate rent adjustments, an array of factors has to be considered. “We can’t look at one thing only,” Languedoc warned. And, Cruz explained, we need to obtain “information from different angles.”

That’s the only area where the two reached any consensus, and what they said about how those varied factors were to be used and what kind of outcomes they lead to were hugely disparate.

Little is known about the newest public member, Risa Levine, who is also a practicing attorney at her own firm, “primarily in the field of real estate,” according to a biography provided by the RGB staff. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

Levine recently met with a group of tenant advocates, but Winegar still says, “At this point, I have little hope for any public members.” Laurie from Met Council, however, said Levine “seems very smart and asked very intelligent questions. … Other public members never open their mouths.”

Winegar wrote in an email that, “All indicators point to the fact that tenants should receive a rent freeze, or a very small increase this year. [But] this has been the case for years.”

Freund said he assumed Levine “would steer a level course between the two” sides.

Finally, there was a bit of an uproar when it was announced at the first meeting in March that the time for the preliminary vote in May would be moved to the morning, rather than evening – a move that many saw as hostile to working people who are busy during the day.

Markus, an investment banker at Goldman, Sachs, explained the move was the result of how late meetings ran last year. “It’s the board’s legal mandate to make a decision within a certain time period. [I thought] we needed more flexibility,” he said. However, a flurry of letters from elected officials requesting returning the scheduled vote time to the after-work hours affected a change in the schedule.

Beyond that input, Markus declined comment for this story.

– Jillian Jonas