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Paying Rent

Tenants Took Over the Rent Guidelines Board Hearing

But painful rent increases are coming anyway.

City Council members Chi Osse, Alexa Aviles, Sandy Nurse, Shahana Hanif, and Tiffany Caban and tenant organizers disrupt the Rent Guidelines Board 2023 preliminary vote.

City Councilmembers Chi Osse, Alexa Aviles, Sandy Nurse, Shahana Hanif, and Tiffany Caban and tenant organizers disrupt the Rent Guidelines Board 2023 preliminary vote in May 2023. (Hell Gate)

The chanting by housing activists in the Great Hall at Cooper Union started before the members of the Rent Guidelines Board took their seats onstage. CASA members in neon orange T-shirts and branded bucket hats egged attendees on with bilingual disruption, alternating between Spanish and English versions of "The people united will never be defeated." CAAAV members in surgical masks clapped along with the chants while other pro-tenant crowd members drummed on their wooden seats to add to the cacophony. One guy went absolutely buckwild on the cowbell, as is protest tradition.

Every year, the preliminary vote by the RGB morphs into political theater—tenants push for low or no rent increases, and members of the RGB, mayoral appointees every one of 'em, proceed with what they planned to do all along. The outcome of Tuesday's preliminary vote—two percent to five percent annual increases on one-year rent-stabilized apartment leases, and four percent to seven percent on two-year leases—sounds like a bad deal for tenants, especially because the final vote has hewed close to the preliminary for the past few years. We're living in a dire affordability crisis—according to City data, rent currently eats up half or more of the income of almost four out of ten rent-stabilized tenants. That urgency was on display Tuesday, as a vigorous show of tenant dissent across age, race, and geography, combined with City Council solidarity, made it impossible for almost anyone—even the people on stage—to actually hear the exact results of the vote in its immediate aftermath. 

As a 7 p.m. start time for the vote proceedings drifted into 7:30, a lone RGB member—a very red-faced man named Doug Apple, no further comment on that—grimaced in his seat while City Councilmember Chi Ossé led the crowd in the call-and-response standard, "What do we want?" "Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" which devolved into a more topical "Rent rollback! Rent rollback!" as other board members shuffled to their seats. The first sign of approval from the crowd came when the only two board members who represent tenants, Adán Soltren and Genesis Aquino, took their seats.

The noise from the crowd didn't stop when the board members started talking. The only audible line from RGB chairman Nestor Davidson, a housing and land use professor at Fordham University's law school whom Mayor Eric Adams appointed to the position in March, was when he said, "I want to remind the public that these are preliminary guidelines…" which sparked a wave of boos and jeers and cries of "SHAME!" that drowned out the remainder of his statement. Other RGB members, who surely talked at some point, were visibly—and we're editorializing a little bit here but know it when we see it—mad as fuck.

Exactly one hour after the vote was supposed to start, someone unclipped the barrier between the crowd and the board and Councilmember Ossé hopped onstage, soon to be joined by Councilmembers Sandy Nurse, Tiffany Cabán, Alexa Avilés, and Shahana Hanif, plus a flurry of tenant organizers from groups in the Rent Justice Coalition, including the Crown Heights Tenants Union and the Met Council on Housing. 

The disruptors read testimonials from tenants in rent-stabilized housing already struggling to make ends meet—supporting ailing parents or young children, forgoing medical expenses and other bills. Then, they marched around the long table where most of the board members glowered, continuing to chant about rent rollbacks.

The noise only abated for tenant board members Soltren and Aquino. Aquino used her time to highlight the fact that she's the only board member actually living in rent-stabilized housing and contrasted statistics about tenant vulnerability in New York City, including a recent report that found that most New Yorkers can't afford to live here, with the fact that landlords continue to invest in and profit from rent-stabilized buildings. 

"There's no wonder why landlords haven't applied for this thing called the Economic Hardship Program," Aquino said. "I am being asked to consider my own displacement and the displacement of millions of New Yorkers who depend on our vote. Unfortunately, there are many tenants like my mother, who is a home attendant earning $16 an hour, paying 63 percent of her income towards rent." Home health aides like Aquino's mother are cited in the NYC True Cost of Living Report as workers most likely to head households below the city's cost of living threshold. "Unless I support my mother's household," Aquino said, "she's at risk of getting evicted from her rent-stabilized apartment, just like she was in 2019, 2016, and 2017." 

Aquino ultimately recommended a negative one percent rollback to one percent increase for one-year leases and zero percent to two percent for two-year leases; only Soltren voted "yes." A majority of the board members opted to back the higher increases, to the crowd's highly vocalized dismay.

Still, the people who came out in support of the rollbacks told Hell Gate that they felt galvanized by the negative response to the board's vote. "I actually think we were fewer in numbers but higher in energy [than previous RGB demonstrations]," said Dennis, the cowbell-clanging Met Council member who has lived in a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem for the past eleven years and has attended RGB preliminary votes since before COVID. "I knew there was going to be tenant enthusiasm, but I did not know there was going to be a storming of the stage," he said post-vote, laughing. "That was really exciting." 

But for all the excitement of the protest, higher rents are coming. "There's no reason for this board to propose a two to five and a four to seven percent increase in a moment when we know New Yorkers are in pain, New Yorkers are struggling to live here, and we aren't seeing wages going up," Councilmember Hanif said, after the vote. And she and the Councilmembers who stood on stage alongside her wanted to make it clear that—in spite of a statement hinting at the contrary—Mayor Adams was in full control of the end vote, even if activists controlled the way it unwound. 

"These are the mayor's appointees, this is the mayor saying, 'I don't have the back of tenants in New York City,'" Hanif said. "People should understand that: This is a message from the mayor. These are his people, this is his word to New Yorkers saying, 'I don't care about you all. Figure it out. Leave if you have to.'"

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