Why Tenants Need a Rent Freeze

Why Tenants Need a Rent Freeze

Published: 
May 2018

New York City’s Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 states that all city rent controls “have a twofold purpose: to limit profiteering in a market marked by housing shortage and to conserve and improve the housing stock of the City of New York.”

As a rent-stabilized tenant for over forty years, I have experienced numerous attempts by landlords to increase profits by raising rents beyond the usual annual increases allowed by the Rent Guidelines Board. First, when I moved into my apartment in the early 1970s, there were no regulations on rent increases because of the state’s 1971 vacancy-decontrol law. The apartment was deregulated when the previous tenant, who was rent-controlled, moved out. The landlord doubled the rent when I moved in.

The state Emergency Tenant Protection Act, enacted in 1974, put these decontrolled apartments into rent stabilization. However, rent-stabilized tenants have had multiple extra charges permanently added to their rent. 

When fuel-oil prices were high in the late 1970s, the RGB twice added an $8 “fuel pass-along” surcharge to rent. Yet when the cost of fuel decreased, those charges were not rescinded.

In the 1980s, the RGB for seven years in a row added a “longevity supplement” raising rents for tenants who paid below a certain amount. It was called a “poor tax” because most of the long-term tenants who had to pay it had low incomes. In 1986, it was an extra $15 a month for tenants who paid less than $350, on top of the regular increases of 6 percent for a one-year lease and 9 percent on a two-year lease. From 1994 through 1997, the RGB added a poor tax of $15 to $20 on apartments renting for under $400, raising the threshold to $450 in 1998 and $500 in 1999 and 2000. 

In 2008, 2009, and 2012, the board took a slightly different approach, setting a minimum increase for tenants who had occupied their apartments for six years or more: In 2008, it was $45 for a one-year lease and $85 for two years. The next year, despite the worst economic crash since the Depression, it was $30 and $60.

Tenants also often have to pay increases for major capital improvements (MCIs) and individual-apartment improvements (IAIs), usually without the tenant’s request or approval. Replacing six windows in an apartment could raise the rent by $42, and a new stove and refrigerator might add another $14. A new boiler or roofing should be considered a needed repair rather than an MCI. These increases are also permanently added to the rent, even after they have paid off the cost of the work done.

All this has left tenant’s rent-burdened. In Manhattan’s Community Board 3, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where I live, the median household income is $42,268, and 50.5 percent of tenants pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to the Coalition Against Tenant Harassment. The Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development reports the same percentage of rent-burdened households in the area.

Citywide, the RGB’s recent studies estimate that in 2016, tenants’ incomes remained stagnant for the fourth consecutive year, while landlords’ profits increased by 4.4 percent. Their net operating income, profits before mortgage payments, was 43 percent.

Also, by the time a tenant is eligible for the Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) or Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs, their rent is often unaffordable. These programs only freeze rents. They do not roll back rents. So, the tenant either continues working despite physical ailments or reduces expenditures on other things, such as medications. Many tenants leave the city or receive eviction notices due to inability to pay the rent. According to the Right to Counsel Coalition, landlords try to evict more than 230,000 tenants a year, primarily for not paying rent. Almost 22,000 households were evicted in 2015.

We need a rent freeze now!