NYC renters revolt for home rule

Unique to U.S. cities, New York is a city of renters. Almost two-thirds of us rent the apartments we call home. In New York, being a renter is often lifelong and the only circumstance under which the not super-rich can live, work and raise children in the city. (NYC is the most expensive U.S. city to live in and ninth most expensive in the world.)

New York is equally unique in having rent controls, in various forms, since the 1920s. The modern version of New York’s rent regulation was born in 1974, when Albany legislators passed the “Emergency Tenant Protection Act” or ETPA. While the name implies government good will, the legislation in fact did two things that have undermined tenants’ rights since its enactment. First, it made tenant protections temporary, subject to renewal every sunset year based on political winds and whims. Second, it concentrated power over rents in the state Legislature, although many lawmakers did not have a single renter in their home district. (From 1962 until 1971, NYC locally controlled its rent regulation system.) The ETPA allows municipalities to opt in if they have a “housing emergency” defined as a vacancy rate less than 5 percent. Currently, four including New York City have opted in.

There are 1.2 million regulated apartments in the state and approximately 90 percent of them are in New York City. This year the NYC vacancy rate was just over 3 percent.

Passage of the ETPA meant the loss of home rule control by New York City over its regulated rental housing. Instead, NYC acquired few, specific responsibilities from Albany. Its most public charge is to annually research changes to landlord’s costs and consequently determine renter increases and a “vacancy allowance” bonus landlords get on units that turn over. These increases are set yearly by the Rent Guidelines Board. The RGB has nine members who, on paper, include two landlord representatives, two tenant representatives and five public representatives. In fact, only one member is actually a renter and most of the landlord and public members have ties to big business and finance. Thus the board votes often isolate the tenant members. Over time, its actions have hiked rents to levels that elevate a mere housing emergency to a housing crisis.

(According to the 2005 NYC Housing and Vacancy Survey, the vacancy rate for units renting under $800 is 1.38-2.3 percent. Apartments at these rents are not hard to find; they are nonexistent. Further, in the 2005 study almost 29 percent of all NYC tenant households pay more than 50 percent of their income toward rent. This is the highest ever recorded in the triennial survey.)

The RGB must hold its preliminary and final votes in public and is required to hear public testimony. However public testimony is taken only after the preliminary vote and the public and landlord members don’t even feign interest in what Joe and Josephine Tenant have to say. Only in 2006 — after years of lobbying by tenants — did the board agree to hold a public session in the Bronx, the borough with the most regulated tenants.

This year the level of Board disrespect for tenants was record and blatant. The one public member who voted in 2005 with the two tenant representatives to freeze rents was removed from the board. One of the tenants’ expert panelists was told to “get the f—- out of here” by the board chair when he pressed a point about eroding tenant protections. A tenant representative proposal to have the board pass an “advisory resolution” in favor of restoring home rule to NYC was voted down 7-2. Through spring and early summer 2006 tenants faced only humiliation.

Until June 27.

The preliminarily vote had set the highest increases in 15 years. This happened despite intense tenant testimony, impressive local political support and almost zero landlord presence. In the Bronx alone over 110 tenants testified in 5-1/2 hours of pubic hearing, one-third in Spanish. One sole landlord bothered to speak. The preliminary vote ignored the decades-long growing low-income and shrinking middle-income patterns in NYC. It also ignored the economic reality: the median income of regulated NYC renters is $32,000. There is very little in our wallets.

The final vote was to begin at 5:30 p.m. on June 27. The jackets-and-ties board sat at a long tableclothed table on a stage above the public, neatly set with ice-water pitchers. Below the board in the cheap seats were the tenants — the hoi polloi, the working people, the seniors with canes. It was nearly standing-room-only in the auditorium. We came with our outrage, desperation and stretched budgets. We came with noise-makers, drums, maracas, chants, percussion, call and response. We were tenants and community groups from all across the city. We came offering ourselves — the only thing we had left to protect our homes. We came to shut the vote down.

From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., we made so much noise the board could not conduct any business. Every time the chair started to speak, we out-noised him. We were a wall of sound, at rock-concert level, for an hour and were so effective that the board called a two-and-a-half-hour recess. Never had the board suspended activity for so long. By 9 p.m., they reasoned, the older tenants and ones with kids would have left and the remaining rabble would be easier to silence.

We quickly mobilized to not lose forces in the 150-minute recess and made sure tenants knew to stay put or be back by 8:15. We expected the board would bar us from re-entering the auditorium and even begin working before 9 p.m. while tenants were scattered and the room quiet.

Shortly after 8 p.m., we materialized again and chanted and beat drums for 45 minutes before the board reappeared. When members did arrive again, we greeted them with our fists in the air and shouts of “We’re still here! We’re still here!” A big group wearing lime shirts waved signs in Chinese. Senior citizens were numerous and unavoidable in the crowd. The many Latino tenants added “Sí se puede!” to the “We’re still here!” rhythm. We upped the ante with “Home rule now! Home rule now!” to remind the board they, like us renters, should not be beholden to Albany. The sound was joyful, defiant, deafening. And we weren’t stopping. At one point, a young woman dressed in kente entered the hearing, brilliantly playing her bongo drum. She immediately overtook the sound in the room. The rest of us followed her lead with our banging. She was glorious; she electrified our cause.

The board then brought in the police. Worried that the board would try to recess yet again, we boldly took over the stage to make a “People’s Rent Guidelines Board.” The bongo woman led and children, mobile seniors and 20-somethings hopped up to occupy the stage on which the board had so far failed to do its work. Our cacophony continued even after the police cleared us off and representatives resumed their seats.

Our uproar persisted unabated until one of the tenant members raised her hand to speak. She was an ally and her words — the only any board member would utter on June 27 audible to all — were an eloquent description of how the board made the problems of working people in NYC worse.

Once she was finished, we went back to bellowing and banging. Around 10 p.m. the chair brought his stenographer up onto the stage so he could conduct business by passing paper notes. Shortly afterward we saw the chair mouth the words “proposed rent increase” and “do I have a second?” At that point we realized the board would vote.

So what did we achieve? Just a delay of the vote to increase our rents? On the contrary. We created a unique disruption to the Board’s process, embodied business-not-as-usual, exercised people power in a bracing display and animated the sham nature of the RGB’s activity. We also called repeatedly for “home rule” for NYC’s renters. Our rent regulation system should be administered locally. Albany’s control over our homes and the undemocratic actions of our Rent Guidelines Board must end. NY renters need home rule now. The tenant takeover on June 27 was a glorious salvo.

Marina Metalios ( is a longtime tenant activist and board member of Tenant PAC.