Volume 79, Number 18 | Oct 7 - 13, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Jason B. Nicholas

On Monday, in Union Square, New York State’s two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer, center, and Kirsten Gillibrand, right, endorsed Bill Thompson, left, for mayor in next month’s general election against incumbent Mike Bloomberg.

Rent ranters turn on Bloomberg, who didn’t freeze hikes

By Patrick Hedlund

Tenants from across the city and elected officials gathered on the steps of City Hall to decry recently enacted rent increases for the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments — and chastise the mayor for refusing to support a rent freeze.

Advocates organized the Thurs., Oct. 1, rally on the same day the rent hikes kicked in, raising the prices of stabilized units 3 percent for one-year leases and 6 percent for two-year leases.

The demonstration’s intent was to criticize the city Rent Guidelines Board’s vote to levy the increases despite the recession. But the gathering ultimately came to resemble a campaign rally for mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, who attended the event.

“These days when rents go up, we know what’s wrong,” said Thompson, the city’s comptroller, in front of a vocal crowd waving signs referring to Mayor Mike Bloomberg as “Bloombucks.” “Mike Bloomberg’s rent-stabilization board, his guidelines board, that continues to increase rents, isn’t there for tenants — they’re there for the landlords.”

Since the R.G.B. is composed of nine members appointed by the mayor — including two landlord and two tenant representatives, as well as five public members — Bloomberg has been faulted for not advising the board to freeze rents during the downturn. The board has never approved a rent freeze in its 40-year history, and last year voted to approve its highest increases in nearly 20 years — 4.5 percent for one-year leases and 8.5 percent for two-year leases.

“Mike Bloomberg’s board continues to escalate rent, continues to squeeze us more each and every day, continues to say to those who rent, ‘New York City’s not for you unless you’re going to rent luxury housing’ — and they’re pushing us out of the city of New York,” Thompson continued. “I see signs here that say he needs to fire his rent board. We need to fire Mike Bloomberg instead.”

In June, the R.G.B. voted 5 to 4 in favor of the increases despite calls by many elected officials for no rent hikes. Joining the push was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has a strong record on tenant protections but has been viewed as a close ally of Bloomberg.

“Whatever year you go to the Rent Guidelines Board [vote], the sad truth is you can predict the outcome before it has even begun,” said Quinn, who represents Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, and was one of the only speakers not to join in the anti-Bloomberg rhetoric. “Whether or not expenses have gone up or expenses have gone down; whether profits have gone up or profits have gone down; whether tenant income has gone up or tenant income has gone down — rents go up year after year after year. This is basically a kangaroo court.”

Assemblymember Richard Gott-fried, however, pointed to the dearth of Democratic leadership in the Mayor’s Office as the reason for the invariable increases.

“It is so important that we have a chance to have a mayor who will actually speak and work and appoint on behalf of tenants,” said Gottfried, whose district covers Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and much of Midtown. “It has been 16 years since this city had a mayor who was not hostile to the interests of rental tenants. And that’s why we have the Rent Guidelines Board’s rent increases that are not only unfairly high, but come on top of year after year after year of unfairly high rent increases.”

Brooklyn Councilmember Letitia James, who organized the demonstration, referenced a host of statistics to reinforce the call for a freeze, including figures showing that nearly a third of the city’s tenants put half of their incomes toward rent and more than 1.5 million New Yorkers live in poverty.

“Yet landlords, according to the Rent Guidelines Board’s own income-and-expense reports, they have fared well,” she said. “In fact, they’re doing better.”

Upper West Side Councilmember Gale Brewer said that the mayor should be stripped of his ability to appoint board members, suggesting instead that the responsibility fall on the City Council.

Over all, the common refrain by most at the rally was that Bloomberg needs to be held accountable come Election Day.

“We want everyone in the city to become cognizant that your apartment may be the last one that you can live in in New York City if we don’t get rid of this corrupt Rent Guidelines Board,” said Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, whose Upper West Side district includes a small swath of Hell’s Kitchen. “Rent freeze, get a new mayor — we can all live happily ever after.”

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