NYC may freeze rent again for 2 million tenants

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THE panel that sets rents for more than two million New York City residents signalled on Wednesday that it may again freeze rents for some of them - a move that would be a boon to tenants but a blow to landlords as both camps scrape by amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The panel, the Rent Guidelines Board, voted 5-4 to consider keeping rents on one-year leases as is or letting property owners raise them up to 2 per cent. Doing so would essentially extend a rent freeze that the board approved last summer. Rents on two-year leases could rise by 1-3 per cent.

The vote on Wednesday was preliminary. A final decision by the board, which sets rents for about half of the city's rental housing stock, will come in June and take effect in October. It would cover 1.2 million regulated units; market-based rentals would not be affected.

Any freeze approved by the board would be the fourth in seven years, a remarkably stagnant stretch for government-regulated rentals and a sign of officials' concern that tenants cannot afford to live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States.

"For folks in the Bronx and across the city struggling before the pandemic, the struggle just continues," said Sheila Garcia, a board member who represents tenants' interests.

The board's deliberations this year come in a particularly challenging period for renters and landlords, with New York City still beginning to emerge from its worst recession in decades.

Although the local economy appears to be starting to recover as restrictions imposed because of the pandemic continue to be eased, many people are still relying on unemployment assistance and falling behind in many of their bills, including rent.

The unemployment rate in New York City in March was 11.2 per cent, about half of what it was in June but nearly triple the rate in March 2020, before the pandemic hit with full force.

All of the rent board's members were appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat. In addition to Ms Garcia and a second member who represents tenants, two members represent landlords and five represent the general public.

In many ways, the panel's decision on Wednesday was likely to disappoint those who pay rent as well as those who collect it.

Tenant groups spent recent weeks trying to rally support for a reduction in rents, something that the board has never adopted in its 52-year history. Black and Latino residents who lost jobs in significant numbers because of the pandemic and have yet to find new ones are having particular trouble affording their current rents, housing advocates said.

Ms Garcia and the board's second tenant representative hoped to address that by proposing a 3 per cent reduction in rents on one-year leases. The proposal failed by a vote of 7-2.

Some relief is already on the horizon for tenants. The state Legislature recently approved a US$2.4 billion rental assistance programme that is meant to help tenants cover up to a year's worth of back rent and unpaid utility bills. The aid has not been distributed yet, but tenants will be able to begin applying for it later this month.

New York state also recently extended an eviction moratorium for residential and commercial renters until Aug 31. The initiative also protects small residential landlords from foreclosure proceedings if they cannot make their mortgage payments.

On the property owners' side, the Real Estate Board of New York, an influential lobbying organisation, and other landlord groups had called for increases of 3-5 per cent on one-year leases, which would be the biggest jump since 2014. Such an increase is necessary to pay rising property taxes and to keep buildings in good condition, landlords said.

The board noted in a report that expenses for landlords of rent-regulated buildings had risen 3 per cent in the past year, with the cost of items such as insurance, labour and maintenance going up.

At the meeting on Wednesday, Scott Walsh, a board member who represents property owners, proposed a 2.75 per cent increase for one-year leases and a 5.75 per cent for two-year leases.

"The impacts to owners over the past 15 months have been historically unprecedented, with high vacancies, century-record-breaking collection loses and higher operating costs," he said. His proposal, like the one offered by the tenant members, failed by a vote of 7-2.

Property owners criticised the board's vote on Wednesday, saying that government help for tenants should come from the state and federal levels, not from a local entity.

"Tenants impacted financially by the pandemic have received thousands of dollars in stimulus cheque, enhanced unemployment benefits, and other government relief," said Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords with roughly one million rent-regulated units in New York City.


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