Foiled in Albany, Tenant Advocates Win NYC Rent Freeze

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Mayor de Blasio last year called for a rent freeze and didn't get it. This year he stayed mum and did.

Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.

Mayor de Blasio last year called for a rent freeze and didn't get it. This year he stayed mum and did.

A critical fortnight for affordable housing in New York ended Monday night with a vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board approving an unprecedented freeze on one-year leases for rent-stabilized apartments. The board also approved a 2-percent increase for two-year leases, another new low.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio called for a rent freeze and was thwarted by a board he didn’t yet completely control: The board passed what were then record-low hikes of 1 percent and 2.75 percent for one- and two-year leases, respectively. This year he eschewed making an explicit recommendation, but last night hailed the move by a board now completely comprised by his appointees. “This was the right call,” he said in a statement released by City Hall. “We know tenants have been forced to make painful choices that pitted ever-rising rent against necessities like groceries, childcare and medical bills. Today’s decision means relief.”

The board, which consists of two landlord representatives, two tenant representatives and five “public” members, supported the decision by a vote of 7 to 2, according to published accounts. The adopted measure was one of eight proposals on the table Monday night. One called for a hike of 2 percent on one=year leases; another would have rolled rents back 4 percent on one-year deals. (Read the winning order here)

City Hall says some 1.2 million tenants live in apartments with leases coming up for renewal this year. All told, there are some 2 million tenants living in the city’s nearly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments.

These are the same tenants affected by last week’s decision by state legislators to make modest changes to the rent laws, which had originally expired June 15. Tenant groups hoped the state would end a mechanism through which apartments leave the rent-stabilization system once their rent exceeds a threshold and they are vacated. But lawmakers and the governor, despite early signals that deeper reform was possible, made only modest changes to the laws.

At the RGB, tenant groups argued that a freeze or rollback was in order in light of statistics showing property owners’ profits rising as tenant incomes stagnated. In his statement, de Blasio noted a 21 percent decrease in fuel costs over the past year. Anger remained over decisions by the board during the Bloomberg years, even at the height of the financial crisis and recession, to continue raising rents.

“We applaud this historic decision, which will give much needed relief to rent stabilized tenants who have for many years, paid more than what was warranted based upon landlord needs,” the Alliance for Tenant Power said in a statement Monday night. “But what tenants wanted was a rent rollback, to make up for the historic inequities in RGB increases. In order to make a rent freeze beneficial to tenants with two-year leases, the Board will have to take this issue up once again next year. And while we celebrate this event, it does little to mitigate the anti-tenant legislation that recently passed in Albany which will increase displacement and gentrification by allowing landlords to continue to remove units from the broken, loophole ridden system of rent regulation in New York City.”

Landlord groups countered that the RGB’s statistics didn’t capture all the costs faced by building owners, and warned that a rent freeze would make it more difficult for landlords to afford repairs and maintenance. They argued that in order to preserve affordable, rent-stabilized apartments—a cheaper deal than the new construction called for in the mayor’s affordable housing plan—owners needed the wiggle-room that a modest increase would have permitted.

They lost. And de Blasio, without Gov. Cuomo or Republican senators from rural upstate towns to derail him, won.

“Even though Governor Cuomo completely and thoroughly let New York City tenants down, we’ve found solace tonight from one of the most unlikely of places: the RGB,” City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, the chairman of the housing committee, said Monday night.

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