“The result of the latest reporting only serves to reinforce an unequal economic standing between landlords and tenants. Through its limited scope, this reporting causes unnecessary panic, potential demoralization, and ultimately a false sense of relief if the board goes with anything lower than the reported high end number.”
On April 20, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) met to review two reports prepared by their research staff: the Price Index of Operating Costs (PIOC) and the Mortgage Survey Report. In the reporting that followed in the wake of that more than three hour meeting, one hair-raising number floated to the surface: 15.75 percent.
Influential outlets both online and on TV from CBS News to Pix 11 to Yahoo! to NBC to AM NY to Hamodia—and even real estate publications that should know better, like The Real Deal and Crain’s—suggested that the RGB is proposing 15.75 percent rent increase for 1 million rent stabilized tenant households, setting off alarm bells around the city for another round of brutal rent increases.
But nearly all of this coverage is misleading at best and a misrepresentation of the RGB process in general. Even outlets that offered a more nuanced approach, like the New York Times, sported sensationalist and misleading headlines.
Here’s what really happened: just like it does every year, the RGB’s staff produced a single data point that said rent stabilized landlords could need rent increases as high as 15.75 percent for a two-year lease in order to keep net operating incomes stable in a 100 percent rent stabilized building.
They also produced data points showing a lower increase could achieve the same end, and that the board is not required to act in a way that keeps the landlord’s profits steady or growing every single year. At no point did the staff suggest the board vote for that increase, nor did the board say that it plans to.
You wouldn’t have gleaned that though from the coverage. The result of the latest reporting only serves to reinforce an unequal economic standing between landlords and tenants. Through its limited scope, this reporting causes unnecessary panic, potential demoralization, and ultimately a false sense of relief if the board goes with anything lower than the reported high end number.
Most of the coverage failed to distinguish between the research staff of the RGB and the RGB itself. While the RGB is appointed by the mayor and its members usually rotate every several years, the staff is a team of career civil servants whose job is to crunch numbers. They don’t make recommendations.
The RGB, who attended the meeting, listened to the staff’s presentation and asked questions, but hasn’t made any recommendations—yet. The number seized upon by the media represents the upper range of what the RGB staff calls “commensurate rent adjustments,” or the rent increases which might be necessary to keep net operating income at a constant level for a theoretical fully rent-stabilized apartment building.
Indeed, sensitive to misinterpretations of these projections from previous years, the staff included a crucial caveat in the PIOC report, which the staff also read aloud in their presentation: “Note that the commensurate adjustments described below do not constitute staff or Board recommendations for guideline adjustments. The various data points presented in this, and other, Rent Guidelines Board annual research reports (e.g., the Income and Affordability Study and the Income and Expense Study), supplementary data sources, in addition to public testimony, can all be considered to determine appropriate rent adjustments.”
The New York City press should have heeded this sober warning. In nearly every case, they did not, and covered the commensurates as the board’s suggestion.
There are two substantial reasons why these estimates don’t amount to recommendations: First, it is difficult to project what expenses landlords will face next year, which is why the commensurate adjustments are presented as a wide range, this year between 5 percent and 15 percent.
Second, it is by no means the chartered purpose of the RGB to ensure a steady net income for landlords. In fact, according to the RGB’s founding document, the Rent Stabilization Law of 1969, the board’s purpose is to “prevent speculative, unwarranted and abnormal increases in rents” and “forestall profiteering” that might “produce threats to the public health, safety and general welfare.”
The RGB staff understands this, which is why they produce a wealth of survey data every year. Instead of amplifying the most landlord-friendly datum they produce, the media should consider the following under-reported items:
- Over the past 30 years, owners of rent stabilized apartments have seen their net operating incomes rise by 50 percent. Very few investor groups globally can claim such stable and high returns.
- According to the Mortgage Survey Report, there was a 14 percent increase year over year in the number of completed sales of buildings with rent-stabilized units. Average sale price per unit also went up, and is now higher than 2016, 2017, and 2018. This undermines the catastrophic narrative pushed by landlord lobby groups that changes to the rent laws in 2019 have torpedoed their buildings’ value. It is simply false.
- The Consumer Price Index—a good measure of how inflation affects tenants—went up by 6.2 percent for the New York metro area, a larger increase than any year since 1981. Costs are not just rising for landlords. It’s obscene to raise rent on two million tenants in response to a global supply chain crunch and the federal government’s attempts to curb inflation by raising interest rates—not to mention overt corporate profiteering.
- A plain majority of rent stabilized tenants are rent burdened (paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing), and more than one-third are severely rent burdened (with more than half of their income spent on rent). Tenants don’t have much left to spare.
The data is clear: landlords are doing historically well and don’t need a rent hike from already rent-burdened tenants.
Outlets might also consider paying more attention to what is missing from recent reports, including:
- Current data on owner income and profits. While the RGB compiles annual data on increases in operating costs, we don’t actually know how much owners are spending or how much they make. We have some proxies, but they take a while to produce, which leads to the current situation: In 2023, the RGB is looking at landlord income and expense statements from 2021, a time when they were undoubtedly doing worse than they are today. Without this context, outlets suggest landlords are doing poorly.
- Historical data on excessive rent increases. The RGB has never fully reckoned with its spate of recklessly high increases implemented before and especially during the Bloomberg Administration, which reverberated even through the de Blasio administration rent freezes. Those increases are permanent and compound onto each other year after year, continuing to pile stress onto tenants and imperil public welfare.
As the RGB hears testimony and considers evidence from tenants and landlords over the coming weeks, the media must do a better job highlighting relevant data that reflects the whole picture of the report, not just reaching for numbers that create clickbait headlines. We hope to see more nuanced reporting moving forward in an effort to help tenants, reporters, and community members navigate the coming hearings.
As for the RGB, there’s plenty of data to make the following recommendation: don’t raise the rent.
Avi Garelick and Andrew Schustek are researchers and writers based in New York City. They hold graduate degrees in urban planning and policy from Hunter College.