NYC tenants say: the rent is too damn high!

This weekend, thousands of tenants are expected to protest the proposed Rent Guidelines Board rent hikes on rent stabilized tenants

May 19, 2023 by Natalia Marques
Renters and progressive City Council members storm the stage during the May 2 Rent Guidelines Board preliminary vote (Photo: the Party for Socialism and Liberation)

On the morning of Saturday, May 20, New York City tenants will mobilize in Brooklyn to fight rent hikes on rent stabilized units in the world’s richest city. Organized by the New York State tenant’s rights group Housing Justice For All and the Rent Justice Coalition, which organizes rent stabilized tenants, turnout is expected to be in the thousands as tenants across New York fight large rent hikes which are likely to be imposed by the city.

Tenants of rent stabilized units usually pay relatively cheap rents with very clear limits on how much landlords can raise them. Rent stabilization was a victory won in 1969 after decades of grassroots tenants struggle in NYC. It is defined by comparatively lower rents with caps on how much they can increase year to year. These caps are decided by an unelected, mayor-appointed Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). Rent stabilization is a lifeline in a city where landlords and speculators impose a cruel regime of rents that, as of May 2023, have skyrocketed up to a median of over USD 4,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. 

Peoples Dispatch has previously reported on the dire economic straits of US workers, from the increased use of child labor, to the constant shrinking of pandemic-era social spending that has kept many afloat. As recently as April 26 to May 8, almost half of all people in the United States have reported some difficulty paying usual household expenses, according to the US Census. And yet the Federal Reserve is responding to the inflationary crisis by placing the burden of solving inflation entirely on workers, leaving the most powerful capitalists unscathed. The Fed’s raises on interest rates are designed to slow down the economy and trigger a recession, which while fixing inflation will also result in mass unemployment and social services cuts, affecting primarily the most economically vulnerable—the working class. 

Even in one of the wealthiest cities in the country, New York City, the economic crisis is felt acutely by the people. Data indicates that NYC’s poverty rate is nearly twice the national average.

[Landlords are] experiencing inflation, but so are we,” Brianna Soleyn, a rent stabilized tenant and Brooklyn-based tenant organizer, told Peoples Dispatch. “We’re facing stagnant wages, and tenants don’t have land to fall back on.”

Local news coverage in the city is notoriously focused on fear mongering about the alleged rise in crime. But Julie Hollar, writing in Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting in 2021, compiled several shocking statistics: although New Yorkers have only a one in 5,000 chance of being shot, they have a one in six chance of paying over 30% of their income on rent and a one in nine chance of being in extreme debt to a landlord.

Last barrier of protection from skyrocketing rents

Rent stabilized New Yorkers badly need their lifeline of capped rent increases. Their median incomes are under USD 45,000 per year and about 20% live below the federal poverty line. But last year, the RGB voted to permit some of the highest rent increases in almost a decade.

Although the nine unelected Rent Guidelines Board members, who vote publicly, were met with jeers and boos from a large crowd of tenants, they still voted in 3.25% on one year leases and 5% on two year leases in June 2022.

The RGB is mandated by law to consider the “economic condition of the real estate industry,” or in other words, the financial interests of the landlord lobby. But they are not required to show the interests of tenants the same deference. As a result, last month, the RGB released a report that recommended increases as high as 15.75% for two year leases. 

Although the RGB normally proposes increases that are much higher than what they end up becoming after the final vote in June, this high of a percent increase was reportedly unheard of since the 1990s.

During the May 2 preliminary vote, over a month before the final vote to be held on June 21, tenants and progressive city council members stormed the stage in which the rent guidelines board was publicly discussing the 2023 increases. Tenants were demanding a rent decrease, which the New York City RGB has never enacted in its 54-year history. But tenants and tenant advocates argue that landlords cannot be allowed to pass the entire burden of the inflationary crisis onto the backs of New York City renters. “Costs are going up for landlords, costs are going up for tenants—who is in a better position to be able to absorb some of those increases?” asked Adan Soltren, one of only two members of the RGB explicitly tasked with representing tenants.

During that raucous May 2 meeting, most of the nine RGB officials, save the two tenant members, were drowned out by jeers and chants of “rent rollback!” Nevertheless, the Board voted in preliminary increases of between 2% and 4% for one year leases and 4% and 7% for two year leases. Historically, the final votes usually fall within these preliminary numbers. 

These preliminary percentages are higher than they were last year. Therefore, it is very likely that this year’s rent increases will be a few percentage points higher than last year’s.

Veronica Campbell has lived in a rent-stabilized building in Flatbush, Brooklyn for around thirty years. While landlords and landlord advocates claim they need higher rents to afford renovations and repairs, Campbell doesn’t buy it. Her bathroom ceiling caved in months ago but her landlord has yet to fix it. “They’re not fixing anything in the apartments but they get to get more money,” she told Peoples Dispatch. “No, it’s not fair. Especially when landlords are not doing anything.”

The Rent Guidelines Board is appointed by the Mayor, who this time around happened to be the candidate with the most funding from real estate developers out of the entire 2021 mayoral race. The body of nine is charged with deciding the rent prices of 2.4 million rent stabilized tenants. Only one member of the RGB is rent stabilized herself.

Landlords who own rent stabilized apartments kept over 88,000 vacant in 2021—that’s one in ten. That’s more than enough to house every homeless person in the city. Owners hold these apartments hostage to lobby for policies that allow them to jack up the rents. The New York City landlord lobby is also pushing for the US Supreme Court to overturn rent stabilization completely, which would leave low income tenants at the mercy of real estate capitalists.