An upcoming vote of the city’s Rent Guidelines Board has rent-regulated tenants jittery that the payments they make to landlords each month could go up by as much as 9% — a decision that would impact nearly 1 million tenants in the city.
The 9% number is the high end of a rent increase a group of landlords is seeking from the guidelines board. It’s also the top number recommended by the guidelines board itself. The board, which is made up of members appointed by the mayor, will make a preliminary — but likely decisive — vote on the matter Thursday evening.
Denisa Rodrigo, 56, fears that any increase she has to pay on her rent-stabilized studio in Sunnyside, Queens, will ultimately put her out on the street. Rodrigo was raised in the South Bronx and has lived in the studio for 20 years. But she lost her job in the early days of the pandemic and since then has been struggling to repay back rent, which costs $1,050 a month.
“I won’t be able to afford it,” she said of a rent hike. “We need a rent rollback in order to save all these people. Anything less than that will be devastating, will be catastrophic.”
Landlords are of a vastly different opinion, though. The ranges for rent increases being pushed by the landlord-aligned Rent Stabilization Association are 4.5% to 6.5% on one-year leases, and 7% to 9% on two-year leases.
Advocates contend that even the lower end of those ranges — along with those put out by the board — are far too much for tenants to bear, given the economic chaos caused by COVID and the lack of lawyers available to represent tenants in eviction cases.
“The proposed rent hikes that are being considered and discussed — they’re unconscionable,” said Councilwoman Pierina Sanchez (D-Bronx), head of that body’s Housing Committee. “This is not OK. This is going to hurt a million households.”
Approximately 960,000 city residents live in apartments that fall under the umbrella of rent-regulation. Advocates and progressive politicians say many of those residents are ill-equipped to absorb the additional cost, and landlords themselves are much better positioned to take on the financial hit of inflation.
Michael McKee, a longtime tenant advocate and the treasurer of the Tenants PAC, said the formulas used by the Rent Guidelines Board to estimate tenants’ cost burdens — as opposed to those of landlords — are outdated and should be revised.
“The numbers are all bulls—,” he said. “These calculations are what the board does, whether it makes sense to do it or not.”
According to a report issued by the Rent Guidelines Board in April, operating costs for owners of rent-regulated buildings rose by more than 4% over the past year. The price index of costs used by the board to arrive at that number includes utility, maintenance and insurance outlays, and several other measures. Based on that and other calculations, the board recommended a range of possible increases slightly different from those recommended by the landlord-backed Rent Stabilization Association. In April, the increases recommended by the board ranged from 2.7% to 4.5% on one-year leases and between 4.3% and 9% on two-year leases.
Those recommendations are not set in stone — and could change with Thursday’s vote — but they’re still enough to scare tenants and policy experts.
Sam Stein, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society, noted that one of the measures used to gauge the tenant side of the equation — the city’s Housing and Vacancy Survey — is only conducted once every three years, meaning that more often than not, the data is outdated. He believes that should change.
Mayor Adams has not offered too much in the ways of specifics when it comes to the outcome he’d like to see from the guidelines board. When asked about the issue last month, he said the city has to strike a “balance” in which it’s not aggravating the eviction process, while also being mindful of “mom-and-pop” landlords.
“If you are a mom-and-pop that owns a 10-family unit, and you know, your electric bills are going up, your water bills are going up — this is your only source of income,” said Adams, who is also a small landlord. “Sometimes, when we think about landlords, we think about the mega guys. We think about those with thousands of units, but these small moms and pops have been decimated.
“We must be fair here — allow tenants to be able to stay in their living arrangements, but we need to look after those small mom-and-pop owners,” he added.
The “mom-and-pop” descriptor used by Adams echoes the kind of language used by the Rent Stabilization Association. Vito Signorile, the association’s vice president, estimated that about half of the rent-regulated units in the city are controlled by what his group would describe as “mom and pop” owners, or landlords who own 20 or fewer units.
Signorile argued that tenants who can’t afford to pay for a rent increase would be covered under the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP.
“The data shows more than enough justification for the highest increase since at least 2013,” he said.
Stein disagrees. He said rents should remain flat and that ERAP would only help tenants pay for back rent — that it would not help them in the long term if their rents are increased significantly.
“ERAP is superimportant. It’s just not the solution to this question,” he said.
Rodrigo pointed out that even though she’s enrolled in ERAP, she’s only been able to pay down half of the rent owed on her Sunnyside studio and is now anxiously waiting for what she views as an inevitable eviction notice.
“I’m sitting on pins and needles just waiting on my turn to go to court,” she said. “And I probably won’t have an attorney. There aren’t enough attorneys.”
Under the city’s right-to-counsel law, tenants are entitled to free legal representation in Housing Court, but a spike in eviction cases has led to a shortage of housing lawyers.
Aside from that thorny issue, Stein also noted that some of the calculations the guidelines board is now using to determine rent ranges could be improved, specifically when it comes to cost-of-living increases that tenants face.
McKee voiced concerns about that as well and said he worries about Adams’ most recent appointments to the Rent Guidelines Board.
In March, the mayor announced that Christina Smyth would serve as a landlord rep on the board and Arpit Gupta would represent the public. Gupta is an adjunct fellow at the conservative-leaning think tank, the Manhattan Institute.
Councilwoman Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) is also dismayed by the recommendations of the newly constituted board.
Aside from their ready access to the bully pulpit, the City Council has little say over the fate of how much tenants living in rent-regulated units pay, though. Rivera said one remedy for that, aside from speaking out, would be for state lawmakers to give the Council a say over who the mayor appoints to the guidelines board.
Rivera called the ranges for rental increases now on the table “quite troubling” and said she’d like to see the process change when appointing people to the guidelines board.
“That’s something a few of the Council members and I are talking about,” she said.