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Beneath the usual chaos of last Monday’s Rent Guidelines Board hearing, a quieter but equally contentious squabble was also under way. The proposal for substantial rent increases for the city’s million rent-stabilized tenants got all the press. But the board also considered several important technical changes to the city’s rent rules.

Tenant representative Adrienne Holder introduced several provisos that would deny rent increases to owners who don’t register their apartments with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal or in buildings with serious code violations. Another would block owners of buildings where more than 1/4 of the apartments have been de-regulated from collecting any increases on rent regulated apartments.

“A landlord renting…to unregulated tenants is presumably collecting market rents which might be hundreds, or thousands, of dollars more than the regulated rents,” explained Jenny Laurie, director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, in written testimony. “Owners of these buildings don’t need increases from the regulated tenants, and the freeze would help preserve affordability by keeping rent stabilized tenants in homes they can afford.”

Jumaane Williams, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, agreed, particularly regarding the anti-slumlord provision. “The RGB would have to explain why [they want to grant] a rent increase to landlords who don’t follow the law,” he said. “This is a great test case for fairness.”

Steven Schleider, one of the two landlord representatives on the Board, vehemently disagreed. “We don’t condone illegal activity,” he said. “And there are remedies and mechanisms to rectify [illegal behavior]. Whether they are effective or not is not up to the board to determine.”

Schleider also offered his own motion to change the way rents are adjusted for two-year leases. Instead of one increase all at once, he would spread it over both years, offering owners more consistent income to offset their expenses.

Jack Freund, an executive at the Rent Stabilization Association, argued in favor of the change. Two-year leases as currently offered are “like playing the lottery,” he said. “Tenants tend to be winners, landlords tend to be losers.”

Minutes before the meeting opened, the members received an opinion from the city’s law department—the corporation counsel—suggesting that Holder’s pro-tenant provisions were illegal as written. The timing rankled tenant activists. “It’s more than a coincidence that [it] came a few minutes before the meeting,” said Williams.

“I would have liked to have had it sooner,” responded Markus, “But I didn’t.”

In all, six separate proposals were made at the meeting. Two propositions to freeze rents were easily defeated. Schleider’s and Holder’s measures, too, were voted down, 7-2. The board passed the plan for rent increases proposed by Board chairperson Marvin Markus (from 3 to 6.5 percent for one-year leases; from 5 to 8.5 percent for two-year leases) along with a proposal from public member Gale Kaufman to limit rent increases at SRO hotels to less than 2 percent. A final vote on the rent increases will be held next month.

Holder plans to tweak her proposals and re-introduce them. “We are strategizing to rework the wording and are moving forward with this.” The issues, she said, are larger than just changing the rent guidelines. “I’ve already received emails and calls from people applauding the effort, saying ‘something has to be done.’”

She sees the potential for tenants from around the city and state coalescing to push for renter-friendly changes. “I hope we can organize around [these provisions],” she said, “and can take it to the City Council and to the State legislature as a way to have some control over the city’s housing stock.”

—Jillian Jonas

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