Jonathan Custodio, The City

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This article was originally published on Apr 27 8:05pm EDT by THE CITY

With a vote on rent hikes for a million apartments looming next week, tenants and landlords pleaded their case to the Rent Guidelines Board in a five-hour meeting Thursday — with one side asking for a rent freeze and the other for an increase at a scale the city has not seen in years.

Tenant leaders testified that high rents and utility costs are already forcing New Yorkers out of their homes, and that any rent increase will result in more evictions, while landlords are not facing equivalent hardships.

“While New York has various types of affordable housing, most of it isn’t accessible to New Yorkers,” testified Leah Goodridge, managing attorney for housing policy at Mobilization for Justice and an RGB member between 2018 and 2021, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Landlords, meanwhile, pointed to sharp increases in operating and maintenance costs amid rising inflation, pointing to a recent RGB report that recommended hikes as high as 8.5% due to higher costs.

The Rent Guidelines Board, whose nine members are appointed by the mayor, will take their annual vote next month on maximum rent hikes for one- and two-year leases on rent-stabilized apartments, based on its own staff reports analyzing the city’s housing market and testimony from city housing officials and mortgage lenders, in addition to tenant and landlord groups.

Thursday’s meeting was one of four public hearings ahead of a preliminary vote next Tuesday, May 2, at which the board will set a range of potential rent hikes. Then, at a final vote sometime next month, the board will take a final vote that will determine rent increases for leases in the year that begins Oct. 1.

Always contentious, the vote this year is particularly crucial as tenant leaders, landlords, elected officials and policy advocates are in agreement that the city is in a housing crisis. The board’s research this year showed 30% of tenants are spending more than half their income on rent, and the majority are considered “rent burdened,” or spending a third of their earnings or more on housing costs.

Last year, the board, in its first vote under Mayor Eric Adams, raised rents by 3.25% for one-year leases and 5% for two-year leases. That was a big change from the de Blasio years, when the mayor successfully urged the board to deliver rent freezes in three of his eight years in office.

Now tenant groups want a return to those zero-increase days.

“We need a rent freeze in 2023. The numbers I have heard floated coming out of this board are absurd. They arecold-blooded,” said Delsenia Glover, a veteran tenant advocate who spoke on behalf of Harlem’s Lenox Terrace Concerned Tenants Association. She noted that any increase in rent would threaten housing for the significant senior population at Lenox Terrace who live on fixed incomes but are not eligible for the city’s Senior Rent Increase Exemption Program (SCRIE).

Michael Tobman, membership director for the Rent Stabilization Association, a group of 25,000 landlords who own more than a million apartments, pushed back against the notion of an eviction crisis looms. He pointed to the slew of operating costs owners must shoulder courtesy of 24 government regulations, including the Climate Mobilization Act, which will require many buildings to install energy efficiency measures.

“There has been no eviction tsunami. This is a headline-friendly soundbite that oversimplifies and misleads,” he said. “Evictions are down everywhere and when they do happen, again, only a small fraction compared to 2019 and earlier” — numbers reflected in the Rent Guidelines Board research showing the 4,109 evictions last year were down 76% from 2019 levels.

Both groups responded to research on landlord income and expenses, reported for buildings with more than 10 apartments.The board found that the average citywide monthly income for tenants was $1,667, barely outpacing the average rent of $1,495. Owners’ average operating cost was $1,091 while the net operating income tallied at $576 per unit per month.

‘Experiences Are not the Same’

Tenant leaders pointed to rent-stabilized housing as one of the last vehicles of affordable housing, and noted that the state Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has paid out $2.3 billion to landlords, helped tenants endure heavy rent burdens but is no longer taking applications.

Goodridge noted high housing costs disproportionately affect Black, Latino and Asian people and have contributed to a mass exodus of 200,000 Black families from the city over the last decade — and that the rental debate often and falsely frames tenants and landlords as equals.

“One experience would be a landlord who was trying to make a profit off of their property, and, therefore, wants rents to be raised. And the other experience would be a tenant who is literally on the brink of homelessness because those rents will be raised,” Goodridge testified. “Those experiences are not the same and they’re not equal and shouldn’t even be considered to have the same struggles, but oftentimes having been on this board, unfortunately, the experiences were equalized.”

Property owners argued that the RGB’s income and expense report’s inclusion of “Core Manhattan” — areas below West 110th Street and East 96th Street —  presents a rosier economic outlook for buildings with rent-stabilized apartments than actually exists, since many buildings in those areas have few remaining regulated units and command high rents for retail spaces.

The board’s analysis should focus on buildings outside of core Manhattan, which account for 80% of rent-stabilized buildings in the city, according to Joseph Condon, general counsel at Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), an association of 4,000 owners and managers of over 400,000 rent-stabilized rental properties.

“The board should give more weight and consideration to their economic situations compared to other rent-stabilized buildings. We think these highly stabilized buildings should really be driving the discussion here,” Condon said. “Pre-1974, highly-regulated buildings, they have little to no free-market tenants. Many of them have no commercial income. And there’s no other way to keep up with operating costs.”

At least one testimonial called for not just a rent freeze but a reduction. Chinatown Tenants Union representative Chen Ren Ping, 65, lives in a rent-stabilized apartment and said he pays $1,552.36, more than double his retirement income of $794.

“We hope that the Rent Guidelines Board and all of its members this year will not add any rent and roll back the rent.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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