On June 21, over a hundred tenants and housing rights activists rallied in front of Cooper Union in New York City to protest the Rent Guidelines Board’s vote to increase rent on rent-stabilized apartments in the city. The rally was attended by organizations such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Community Action for Safe Apartments, Met Council on Housing, and Crown Heights Tenants Union, among others, and local politicians, such as New York City Council Members Carmen De La Rosa and Alexa Avilés, and New York State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein.
Amid chants of “Housing is a human right!” and demands for a rent rollback, speakers and community members at the action expressed their dismay and anger at the RGB’s anticipated approval of the rent increase before heading inside to disrupt the vote.
“We are here because we represent communities that are in the crosshairs of evictions and displacement,” explained De La Rosa outside Cooper Union. “And tonight, if this board votes to raise the rents, then they are complicit in increasing the homelessness crisis in this city!”
Tenants disrupt RGB vote
The RGB is an unelected committee whose nine members are appointed by the mayor: Two members represent tenants, two represent landlords and building owners, and the other five are so-called “public members” who often oppose rent regulation. Every year, the board meets to discuss and vote on rent adjustments to New York City’s rent-stabilized apartments.
Pro-landlord board members and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have claimed that increases to rent were necessary to protect, in the Mayor’s words, “small landlords” who were “at risk of bankruptcy.” However, a recent study by tech nonprofit Just Fix NYC found that very few owners of rent-stabilized property could be considered “small landlords” — just 1% of rent-stabilized units were owned by landlords who controlled 10 units or fewer. Meanwhile, 88% of rent-stabilized homes are owned by landlords with 100 units or more. RGB tenant representative Adán Soltren decried this as the “myth of the mom and pop landlord” that his fellow board members continued to put forward to justify the rent increase, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
At the meeting, among boos and disruption from the crowd, the RGB voted five to four to increase rent by 3.25% for one-year leases and 5% for two-year leases on rent-stabilized apartments — the highest increases in ten years.
During the vote, the two tenant representatives on the board, Soltren and Sheila Garcia, denounced their fellow board members and the credibility of the RGB process itself.
In his statement before the vote, Soltren said that during deliberations, RGB members had seriously questioned if tenants were actually struggling.
“Who asks if tenants are struggling that badly? People who are out of touch,” Soltren said, before adding that the “people on this board today are choosing to uphold a racist, classist system.”
Soltren and Garcia then introduced a proposed 0% increase for renters, but this proposal failed to pass. Both tenant representatives voted against the 3.25% and 5% increases.
‘Rent increases do not lead to better conditions for tenants’
Owner representatives Christina Symth and Robert Ehrlich were booed and drowned out with whistles and chants from the crowd as they defended their votes for the rent increases. Smyth claimed that rent increases were needed to prevent the “decay of rent-stabilized housing.”
However, tenants and tenant representatives on the RGB knew that such decay was attributed to landlord neglect, not lack of funds.
“Rent increases do not lead to better conditions for tenants,” Garcia said in response to Smyth’s statement, a fact that tenants knew all too well.
That rent-stabilized housing was already decaying due to landlord neglect was demonstrated through countless tenant testimonies given during the two public hearings in front of the RGB leading up to Monday night’s vote.
“Who here has seen roaches in their building?” Ray Dietz, a rent-stabilized tenant and organizer with the PSL, asked the audience during a public hearing a week before the vote. “Rats in your building? Leaks? No electricity? No heat in the winter? Illegal units? No gas? Peeling paint? Broken elevators?”
To each question, numerous attendees responded in the affirmative.
‘We will be back next year’
When the final vote occurred, attendees turned their backs on the board members en masse and continued to boo and vocally condemn the RGB. Afterwards, most of the board members quickly left through a back exit, while only the tenant representatives came out to meet with the attendees to express their disapproval of the vote.
“I’m completely disgusted,” Brooklyn tenant Sarah [last name withheld] of Crown Heights Tenants Union said of the vote. “[The RGB] knows we’re still in a pandemic. We had mass graves, so to say that the most important thing for them to do is to keep up profits? It’s disgusting. We’d have more than enough money to house everyone if we didn’t line their pockets.”
Despite the outcome of the vote, tenants remained determined to keep fighting.
“We will be back next year,” Pilar DeJesus, an organizer with TakeRoot Justice, assured the crowd. “We gotta take notes from the Black Panthers, the Young Lords — they took things over.”