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Housing advocates rally for rent reform bill

Housing advocates and elected officials rallied last Thursday on behalf of proposed legislation to change the system that determines how much rents go up a procedure that activists say has long favored landlords over tenants.

"These are common sense reforms," said state Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan), co-sponsor of the legislation. "This will make the system much more even-handed, with information that is much more accurate and relevant. These reforms are overdue."

The Rent Guidelines Board proposed rent increases Monday ranging between 3.5 percent and 9.5 percent for one-year and two-year leases.

"Every year, the landlords claim they are going to have to go out of business if they don't get big rent hikes," Duane said. "We know there are pressures on operating costs, certainly, but look at the evidence. The overwhelming majority of landlords are doing well."

The proposed legislation, to be introduced in the state Senate and Assembly this week, would restructure the current Rent Guidelines Board process in New York City and the suburban counties of Nassau, Rockland and Westchester.

Duane, Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Westchester) and City Council member Letitia James (D-Brooklyn) discussed what they saw as the plight of tenants and explained the legislation at City Hall.

Activists displayed signs that read "Reform Rent Laws."

Rent advocates said the Rent Guidelines Board was established by the real estate industry during the administration of Mayor John Lindsay.

"Given their origins it is hardly surprising the rent boards have been tilted toward landlords," said Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. "This bill levels the playing field and greatly simplifies the system, making it easier to enforce and easier for the public to understand."

Under the proposed legislation, landlords would be required to file annual income and expense statements with the boards. Landlords failing to submit such reports would be barred from collecting rent increases, as are landlords whose buildings have hazardous violations.

The bill bars the use of Price Index of Operating Costs, which advocates maintain is a one-sided and deceptive report.

"The Price Index is always released a few days before the preliminary vote [of the Rent Guidelines Board], said Laurie. "And pro-landlord members of the board always try to use it to justify another round of excessive rent hikes."

"It is high time for major surgery to be performed on this dysfunctional system," James said. "Anyone who has ever been to one of these [rent board) meetings has seen how unfairly tenants are treated. This reform bill is just the medicine we need."

Tenants from throughout the city demonstrated at the rally with Ida Pollack of Bellerose explaining that she first became a tenant activist "many years ago when our landlord stopped maintaining our building and we staged a rent strike."

Pollack said she is living in her apartment for 45 years.

The proposed change has been spearheaded by Real Rent Reform Campaign composed of tenant groups and local organizations citywide and in suburban areas.

Highlights of the Rent Board Reform Bill:

Requires City Council approval of mayoral appointments to the city rent board and requires county legislature approval of county executive appointments to suburban rent boards.

Changes rent board composition from two tenant, two landlord and five public members to three each, thus ending what advocates call " the annual 'both sides are unhappy so we must doing something right' charade."

Expands required qualifications for public members.

Eliminates what advocates call a "misleading" one-sided Price Index methodology in New York City in favor of suburban methods in which boards consider current income and spending data.

Moves deadline for vote from July 1 to Oct. 1 and effective date of rent adjustments from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1.

Eliminates lease renewal system and substitutes statutory tenancy adjustments for rent stabilized apartments, as in rent control. Annual rent adjustments are to be effective Jan. 1 every year for all rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 136

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