New Bill Would Help Rent-Controlled Tenants

Volume CII, No. 12December, 2002

Michael McKee

This article appeared in the Autumn 2002 issue of Tenants and Neighbors and is reprinted with permission of the NYS Tenants and Neighbors Coalition.

A bill is pending in the New York City Council that would bring long overdue relief to hard-pressed tenants in rent-controlled apartments.

Known as Intro 196, the measure would end the Maximum Base Rent program, under which tenants must pay annual rent increases of up to 7.5 percent.

The MBR rent hike formula is mandated by a local law originally enacted in 1970, whereas rent hikes for tenants in rent-stabilized apartments are set annually by majority vote of the Rent Guidelines Board.

The RGB’s guidelines are set by a fundamentally political process and they are always too high, but they are generally responsive to inflation. During the past decade, landlords’ operating cost increases have been modest, and therefore RGB increases have been modest, though higher than the cost increases. In most recent years the RGB has set rent increases for one-year leases at 2 percent.

Intro 196, introduced by Manhattan Democrat Christine Quinn and 15 other council members, would also end the fuel and labor pass-along programs, which often result in additional annual rent increases on top of MBR rent hikes. Some rent-controlled tenants now pay increases of up to 15 percent per year. There are no fuel and labor pass-alongs under rent stabilization.

Under the bill, the Rent Guidelines Board would establish annual rent adjustments for rent-controlled apartments, which could not be higher than the one-year increase for rent-stabilized apartments.

Virtually all tenants in rent-controlled apartments are 65 or over and living on fixed incomes. In 1998, the most recent year for which data are available, the median household income for rent-controlled households was $17,000. This means that half of the households had incomes below that amount. The median age of rent-controlled household heads was 70.

(Rent-stabilized households had an annual median income of $27,000, hardly affluent but certainly better off than their rent-controlled neighbors. The median age of household heads was 41.)

Intro 196 would bring badly needed relief to renters under rent control. It is long past time that the MBR and fuel and labor pass-alongs were ended.

The bill would continue the provision of the MBR law that requires that landlords correct code violations in order to collect rent increases. It would also require landlords to register controlled rents and services on an annual basis with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, currently mandated only for rent-stabilized units.

Tenants will lobby the City Council to include Intro 196 in the bill to renew the city’s rent laws next spring. The council must renew both rent control and rent stabilization in March, before the rent laws come up for renewal in the State Legislature in June. A simple renewal without improvements to the rent laws is not acceptable to tenants.

Neither Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) nor Housing Committee chair Madeline Provenzano (D-Bronx) is a sponsor of Intro 196. Tenants therefore might face an uphill battle to enact this much-needed reform.

Other sponsors of Intro 196 include Tony Avella, Melinda Katz, Hiram Monserrate and Joseph Addabbo of Queens; Michael Nelson and Domenic Recchia of Brooklyn; Jos̩ Serrano of the Bronx; and eight Manhattan Council members РPhilip Reed, Eva Moskowitz, Bill Perkins, Margarita Lopez, Gale Brewer, Alan Gerson, Miguel Martinez and Robert Jackson. Giff Miller is the only Manhattan Council member who is not a sponsor of the bill.