In New York City, renters howl in anger as board rejects rent freeze

The panel that determines how much landlords can raise costs of the city's 1 million rent-stabilized apartments approved a historic low increase of 1% for the next fiscal year, but in a raucous meeting Monday, it did not give tenants the rent freeze they demanded.

The nine-member panel, which is appointed by the mayor, also approved an increase of 2.75% for two-year leases of rent-stabilized units. The increases take effect in October.


"This moment is a nightmare," one of the board members, Steven Flax, said as he voted for the proposal. Hundreds of tenants waving signs calling for no increase howled in anger.

The proposal, one of several the board had considered, passed 5-4 but not before more than an hour of angry protests by tenants' groups whose chants and angry shouts often drowned out board members as they spoke.

The final agreement appeared to please no one. Tenants and some board members had called for a rent freeze or a rent rollback, arguing that landlords have reaped the rewards of decades of annual rent increases.

"Year after year, even when they didn't merit increases, they got increases," said Sheila Garcia, a board member who represents tenant interests.

Landlords said their property taxes and the costs of maintaining their buildings have soared and that the 1% increase, and the 2.75% increase for 2-year leases, would not cover utilities, water, emergency repairs and other costs.

"It's woefully inadequate," said Jimmy Silber, who owns a building in Greenwich Village, one of Manhattan's most expensive neighborhoods, which has rent-stabilized units. "It's just not enough for owners to pay their costs."

Landlords said the financial difference between a freeze and the increases approved was too small to make a difference to them.

In a separate vote, the board approved a rent freeze for the 17,700 single-room-occupancy, or SRO, units in the city after first rejecting a proposed 3% hike for SRO units.

The decisions, which are binding, followed several meetings at which tenants and their advocates faced off against landlords and property owners. Both sides said they were facing hardships: Landlords said their maintenance costs, taxes and other fees were going up.

The board had considered several options. They included a rent rollback of up to 6% for one-year leases and 4% for two-year leases; and a rent hike of 5.5% for one-year leases and 9.5% for two-year leases.

On Monday, the lines were clear in the Manhattan auditorium where the vote took place. Landlords held signs reading No Cost Freeze. Tenants, who outnumbered the landlords, waved a variety of signs. Freeze Me, said one banner. A man wore a giant cardboard 0 around his neck like a life preserver to proclaim his support for a freeze.

Chants of "rent freeze, roll back!" filled the room as the meeting began.

Tenants and tenant advocates, including several City Council members, said the board's steady stream of rent hikes had pushed the costs of rent-stabilized units up to levels that put them out of reach of the working-class and poor they were intended for.

There are about 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in New York City, where average market-rate rents top $3,000 a month. Apartments automatically are removed from rent stabilization laws when their rent reaches $2,500 per month, so tenants have fought to prevent increases for fear of losing more stabilized units into the free market.

Last year, the board granted landlords a 4% increase on one-year leases and a 7.75% increase on two-year lease renewals. Its highest increase in the last seven years came in 2008, at the height of the recession, when it approved a 4.5% increase on one-year leases and a 8.5% increase on two-year leases.

Of the board's members, two are appointed to represent tenant interests, two represent owner interests and five are supposed to represent the general public.

After the vote, as protesters swarmed toward the stage waving "Rent Freeze" signs and yelling in anger, the song "New York, New York" began blasting through the auditorium speakers.

"If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere," Sinatra sang as one enraged tenant stormed up the aisle toward the exit. "Nobody can make it here," he said bitterly as he pushed through the crowd.

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