Politicians Want New Limits on Hikes for Rent-Controlled Apartments

Originally published in West Side Rag on April 25, 2019.

Verdi Square, at Broadway and 72nd Street, played host to a rally on Wednesday morning, in support of new legislation introduced by local elected officials to protect rent-controlled tenants from what advocates say are unfair rent increases. The legislation, A167A/S299A, would also prohibit fuel pass-along charges, an additional fee rent-controlled tenants are subject to, which fluctuates in accordance with fuel prices.

State Rep. Linda Rosenthal speaking next to State Sen. Brian Benjamin. Photo by Michael McDowell.

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and State Senator Brian Benjamin, who sponsor the legislation in the State Assembly and Senate, respectively, stood with a crowd of rent-controlled tenants and advocates, including representatives of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance and Chair of Community Board 7 Roberta Semer.

“In the 1970s, New York had more than 600,000 units of rent-controlled housing. Today, there are under 22,000 left, because of unrelenting and unmitigated landlord harassment, coupled with unjustifiably high rent increases,” said Rosenthal.

Many New Yorkers believe rent control to be some sort of “golden ticket,” but that simply isn’t the reality, said Sen. Benjamin.

“The vast majority of rent-controlled tenants are seniors who live on very low and very fixed incomes. As of 2017, the median income for rent controlled tenants was $28,000,” Rosenthal said.

“This is about fundamental fairness, fairness to our seniors who have worked so hard, who have played by the rules, who deserve to retire with dignity and respect, and not to be price-gouged every step of the way,” Benjamin said.

Under the current system, rent-controlled tenants can see rents rise as much as 7.5 percent annually.

“When your rent goes up 7.5 percent, but Social Security doesn’t, how are you expected to stay in your apartment? Where are you expected to go? How can you afford to live in the city that you helped build?” she asked. “It’s not fair that rent-controlled tenants have been left behind in the crusade for fairer rent laws, but that stops now.”

The new legislation would rid rent control of the Maximum Base Rent formula, and link increases in rent for rent-controlled tenants to the rent stabilization program, with a cap on percentage increases on par with recent Rent Guidelines Board adjustments for 1-year stabilization renewal leases.

“Rent-stabilized tenants, whose rent increases are calculated annually at the Rent Guidelines Board…have had increases in the past few years of 0 percent, maybe 2 percent. That is all much less than 7.5 percent,” Rosenthal said.

One rally attendee could scarcely be seen behind a podium set up for the event. So she stepped to the side, held onto a microphone, and stared directly into the cameras.

“I’m a rent-controlled tenant. I live in a building of seventy apartments. I am the only rent-controlled tenant,” said the woman, Norma Schreier.

“And they harass her,” a man in the crowd muttered, shaking his head.

“I qualify for [Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption],” Schreier said. SCRIE is an exemption designed to keep eligible seniors in their apartments; landlords receive a property tax abatement credit of the same amount as a rent increase a tenant is exempted from paying.

“Under SCRIE, my monthly rent is $2,425.39. If I did not have SCRIE, my monthly rent would be $2,913.31, plus a fuel charge, of $110.51 per month. There is no way I could afford that. Most rent-controlled tenants are seniors who live on Social Security, as I do.”

“We need relief. We need help,” a man nodded.

A major battle over rent regulation is currently underway in Albany, and other proposed bills include legislation that would repeal vacancy decontrol, as well as close loopholes that have enabled landlords to hike rents, and, critically, which would expand legal protections to millions more renters.

Additional tools are newly available to Upper West Siders who wish to further explore rent control, rent stabilization, and other forms of subsidized and affordable housing in the neighborhood. Fund for the City of New York Urban Fellow Liran Tzuman completed an affordable housing data project for Community Board 7 this month, as part of the Board’s effort to address the affordability issue in the neighborhood.

Some Upper West Siders may be unaware of the status of their apartment; meaning, gentle reader, that there is a not insignificant chance you currently live in a rent-stabilized unit.

The first step to determining whether or not your apartment is rent-stabilized is to request your rent history from New York State Homes and Community Renewal (NYSHCR). To do this, simply send your name and address to rentinfo@nyshcr.org, and ask for your apartment’s rent history, which should then arrive in the mail. Rent history may also be obtained in person, at an NYSHCR office, or by calling (718) 739-6400.

Once you receive your rent history, if you believe you have been overcharged, it may be prudent to first consult a tenant advocacy organization or attorney. This disclaimer aside, NYSCHR outlines the complaint process here, which could result in a reduction in your rent, as well as a payment from your landlord.