Amid Pandemic, N.Y.C. Likely to Freeze, but Not Cut, Rent for 2 Million

The New York City board that sets rents for the roughly 2.3 million residents in rent-regulated apartments is expected to vote on Wednesday to freeze rents for one-year leases, a slight reprieve for tenants struggling in the worst economy in decades.

The annual vote by the Rent Guidelines Board usually caps weeks of hostility and fierce tensions between landlords and tenants. But this year, with the coronavirus pandemic triggering an economic collapse and nationwide protests over racial inequality and injustice, the acrimony has reached a fever pitch.

Some tenant groups have called for a rent decrease, which the board has never approved in its more than 50-year history. Tenants, particularly black and Latino people who have been especially hard hit by job losses, cannot afford their current rent and could face homelessness without some relief, they said.

An eviction moratorium imposed by the state for those affected by the pandemic and economic shutdown expires in August.

“Our clients and all low-income tenants across the city are already at a breaking point, and we must provide meaningful relief in order to avoid a wave of evictions,” Adriene Holder, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a former member of the rent board, said in a statement on Wednesday.

But landlords have urged the board to acknowledge their financial straits, including years of rising expenses and, more recently, the nonpayment of rent by tenants and organized rent strikes. They have asked for at least a 2 percent increase on rents.

In the end, the nine-member board is expected to ratify its initial vote in May to impose a freeze on one-year leases and on the first year of two-year leases. Landlords would have the right to impose a maximum 1 percent increase in the second year of two-year leases.

The changes would go in effect on leases renewed after Oct. 1 for the nearly 1 million rent-stabilized units, about half of the city’s rental stock. It does not affect market-based rentals. Rent-stabilized apartments are typically in buildings built before 1974 with at least six units, as well as buildings constructed or renovated since then with special tax benefits.

A rent freeze would be the third under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who appoints all the board’s members. (Last year, the members approved a 1.5 percent increase for one-year leases and 2.5 percent on two-year leases.)

Landlords criticized the mayor for not taking their own precarious situation into consideration.

“The R.G.B. is ignoring its own data and playing de Blasio’s game of pandemic politics,” said Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 owners of the nearly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the city. He said the board was “ignoring the fact that New Yorkers have received government stimulus and enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic, and that hundreds of thousands of households are already back to work or will return to their jobs in the weeks ahead.”

Asked repeatedly about his stance on the board’s coming decision at his daily news briefings, Mr. de Blasio, who himself is a landlord, has said he supports a rent freeze.

The Rent Stabilization Association and other landlord groups have said that if tenants receive a rent freeze, the city should enact a similar freeze for owners on property taxes and utilities.

The annual ritual, in which a city board with a bureaucratic name meets to decide the coming year’s rent for millions of New Yorkers, has long been a flash point that puts the grievances of both tenants and landlords on full display.

Those groups and their competing interests have clashed for decades and fought especially hard in recent times as housing costs, as well as landlord expenses, have skyrocketed. The median monthly rent citywide on rent-regulated apartments was $1,260 in 2018, up from $910 in 2010. In Manhattan, it was $1,913.

But Wednesday night’s meeting comes at a time of a particularly acute crisis that has thrust the issue of affordable housing to the forefront of daily conversations about inequality and economic survival.

The coronavirus pandemic has put millions of New Yorkers out of work, making rent payments nearly impossible for many at a time when the city already did not have enough affordable units to meet demand.

And the protests over racial injustice have expanded far beyond issues of police brutality, placing a glaring spotlight on the many disparities — including housing — that black people face. About two-thirds of tenants in rent-stabilized units in New York City are people of color.

The debate over whether and how to help New Yorkers pay their rent has been a constant topic of conversation over the course of the pandemic. Roughly 25 percent of rent-stabilized tenants have not paid rent in April, May and June, according to the Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP, a trade group for 4,000 building owners and managers.

Community nonprofits and progressives across the country have rallied around a broad #CancelRent campaign, which seeks to persuade the government to halt rent and mortgage payments — without back payments accruing — for as long as the pandemic continues to batter the economy.

Several landlords’ organizations have proposed shorter rent freezes with higher increases in future years that they say would be necessary for landlords to keep up with operating expenses.

Freezing rent, they have argued, would only expedite the deterioration of the city’s aging housing stock since landlords would not have enough income to make improvements.

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