Mayor Eric Adams, otherwise inconsistent and ideologically peripatetic, has not budged on the question of rent. Since campaigning in the Democratic primary last year, Adams has questioned the idea of bailing tenants out during the pandemic and finding a way, through the powers he exercises over the more than one million New Yorkers living in rent-stabilized apartments, to reduce rent burdens.
Rather, as a landlord himself, Adams has repeatedly expressed sympathy for the building owner class. “We don’t want to aggravate the eviction process, but we also got to look at small property owners,” he said last week. “You know, if you are a mom-and-pop that owns a ten-family unit, and you have, you know, your electric bills are going up, your water bills are going up, this is your only source of income.”
While New York City is an incredibly expensive place to live, a small lifeline exists for the number of tenants lucky enough to secure apartments in the rent-stabilization system. Overseen by the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) — the mayor appoints all nine members — these apartments can still have high rents but guarantee tenants the opportunity to regularly renew leases. In addition, landlords who own them cannot rapidly hike rents up on their own. Instead, they must follow the recommendations of the RGB. Under Bill de Blasio, a relatively tenant-friendly mayor, the Board froze rents multiple times, lending working- and middle-class tenants a degree of stability during a decade that otherwise saw the city grow increasingly unaffordable.
Rent-stabilization is an old system, generally covering buildings with six or more units built before 1974. In the past, Adams has fallaciously invoked the image of black middle-class homeowners losing out when the RGB freezes rent because these homeowners allegedly need escalating rents to pay mortgages. In reality, a person who owns a house with one or two tenants is not covered by rent-stabilization. Of late, Adams’s rhetoric has moved away from this example, now speaking broadly about the so-called “mom-and-pop” landlord that owns a building with ten units. Such a building is quite large and generally lucrative for anyone lucky enough to own it.
But even this example is unlikely: the average apartment in the five boroughs belongs to a twenty-one-property, 893-unit portfolio, according to city data crunched by JustFix NYC. Landlords owning more than twenty buildings were associated with more than half of these apartments across the city. When Adams backs rent increases on stabilized units, he does the bidding of the megalandlords who don’t want to see their profits dip as inflation rises.
Recently, a staff report from the RGB argued rents would need to rise between 4.3 percent and 9 percent for two-year leases in order for landlords to maintain their current profit margins and repairs. One-year leases could jump by 2.7 percent to 4.5 percent. These kinds of increases would likely fuel an eviction crisis already consuming the city’s housing courts. Landlords decry the rising costs of heating and servicing their buildings — yes, inflation is quite real — but it’s tenants who are grappling with daunting cost-of-living increases in most aspects of their lives. For most in the working class, rent is by far the biggest monthly expense, and a large enough hike could make their existence deeply precarious.
So far, Adams has appointed two members to the RGB who are explicitly anti-tenant or skeptical of the city’s means of regulating rent. Unlike de Blasio, he will bring no pressure on the body to freeze rents or make minor increases. He has made it clear where his loyalties lie — with landlord and developer donors who resent tenant leverage.
There are questions, too, about the Board’s report that pushes for rent increases. Why vote to keep profits steady for landlords when they reaped large annual increases during the Michael Bloomberg years that have been baked into rent levels since? Inflation was low for Bloomberg’s twelve years as mayor, but landlords aggressively pushed for significant hikes. Rent was never frozen until de Blasio took office and it’s never, ever been rolled back.
Tenant activists and organizations are beginning their public battle against rent increases, planning a rally in City Hall Park for Thursday morning at 11 AM. Right now, the rally has largely drawn large housing organizations and tenant unions. It will be vital for the broader progressive left to get heavily involved in the fight before the Board takes their vote in June. The Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, and prominent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez must apply their full weight against Adams, who currently feels emboldened by healthy poll numbers. Adams will respond to pressure and power. If the movement against him isn’t significant enough, he’ll simply have the Board do the bidding of landlords and move on.