New York’s residential housing profile, unlike any other city, shows that it is comprised mostly of renters, not homeowners. More than two million people live in the city’s one million rent stabilized apartments found throughout the five boroughs.
These New Yorkers who live in rent-regulated units, the vast majority of whom have only low or moderate incomes, must be protected from the destructive financial impact of the coronavirus. The New York State Legislature or Governor must take action to suspend board deliberations and freeze rents of rent regulated apartments until next year.
Every year, from late winter to summer, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board votes to determine what increases, if any, to impose on renters. The board, whose nine members include representative for landlords and five public members, review reports on projected costs and net income, hold public meetings to hear from tenants and then take a preliminary and final vote on the rent adjustment levels for lease renewals.
We, the board’s two tenant representatives, believe that this year, amid the ravage of the coronavirus, is not the time for business as usual. Instead, it is the time for a time-out.
We do not make this request lightly. We are fully aware that many landlords, too, will be hurt by the pandemic. But it is already apparent that many of the city’s tenants are enduring a sudden, devastating, economic impact by a pandemic-related job loss. The New York State Labor Department revealed that the agency has already seen a 1000 percent increase in claims since the inception of the coronavirus outbreak.
Of course New Yorkers will not be the only ones suffering during this economic crisis. Approximately 3.3 million have filed for unemployment nationwide. But here in New York, the ugly truth is that even before the pandemic, many tenants were at a crisis point, particularly given the city’s increasingly expensive housing market. We—a tenant organizer and housing attorney—have heard the wrenching stories from tenants frantically trying to hold on to their rent stabilized apartments amid sudden reverses in income: a bus driver who suffered a life changing disability and as a result, a loss of employment; a woman fleeing spousal abuse who found the shelter system to be only a temporary reprieve; a man whose diagnosis of dementia has upended his life. These stories, all too common even in the best of times, describe an unsettling reality: moderate income New Yorkers are one tragedy away from homelessness in a city with unaffordable rent. Housing stability for low-income tenants is even more precarious.
Now, for many New Yorkers, the coronavirus has brought that “one tragedy” to their doorstep.
It is a crisis exacerbated by the fact that more than 280,000 apartments have been rent de-regulated across the city since 1993. Those apartments remain deregulated, even as numerous studies show that most New Yorkers are “rent overburdened”—that is, more than a quarter of their income goes towards rent. That rent burden means that tenants have less money for other necessities such as childcare, groceries, and transportation.
Of course, the multiple crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic are not only affecting New York’s tenants of rent stabilized apartments. But it is one area where the course of action necessary to be undertaken is clear. For one thing, the social distancing measures taken to limit the pandemic’s reach have made the Board’s process of considering a rent increase untenable. And live-streaming the public testimony, hearings and votes would not work either. We could not expect tenants to engage in any meaningful way in such an effort because many do not have access to computers or the internet. By state law, the board cannot vote for a rent freeze that would take effect now—it must adhere to the process of hearings, a preliminary vote and a final vote. That is why the governor or state assembly—both of whom have the power and authority—must act now to suspend the board deliberations and freeze the rents. Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed his support for this relief.
The Rent Guidelines Board did not freeze rents during the Great Recession of 2008. We must not make that same mistake now. The pandemic has proven to be disastrous in a matter of weeks and will likely leave an even deeper financial dent in our lives than the Great Recession. The Governor and the state Legislature must act now to protect New York rent regulated tenants.
Leah Goodridge is the Supervising Attorney at Mobilization for Justice, Inc. and Sheila Garcia is the executive director of Community Action for Safe Apartments. Both are tenant representatives on the Rent Guidelines Board.