The New York City panel that sets rents for the roughly 2.3 million residents of rent-regulated apartments on Wednesday froze those rents for a year, delivering a slight reprieve to tenants struggling in the worst economy in decades.
By a 6-to-3 vote, the panel, the Rent Guidelines Board, approved a measure that froze rents on one-year leases at their current levels and imposed a similar freeze in the first year of two-year leases, while allowing landlords to raise rents 1 percent in the second year.
The vote came after dueling proposals offered by the board’s tenant and landlord members failed. The tenant proposal would have frozen rents for two years, while the landlord members sought to raise rents 2 percent on one-year leases and 5 percent on two-year leases.
The board’s annual vote typically 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 reached a fever pitch.
Some tenant groups had called for a rent decrease, which the board has never approved in its more than 50-year history. Tenants, particularly black and Latino city residents who have been especially hard hit by job losses, cannot afford their current rent and could face homelessness without some relief, renters’ advocates 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.
Landlords had 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.
In the end, the board ratified an initial vote it had taken in May.
The changes affect leases renewed after Oct. 1 for the nearly one million rent-stabilized units, about half of the city’s rental stock. They do 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.
The rent freeze approved on Wednesday is the third under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who appoints all of 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.)
After the vote, landlords criticized Mr. de Blasio for playing “pandemic politics” and not taking their own precarious situation into consideration.
The mayor was “denying owners of small buildings, mostly immigrants and people of color, the rent revenue needed to operate their buildings, finance capital improvements, infuse jobs and revenue into their neighborhoods, and pay property taxes that he raises every year,” said Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents some 25,000 landlords of rent-stabilized units.
Mr. de Blasio, who himself is a landlord, hailed the board’s action in a statement issued after the vote.
“Renters have never faced hardship like this,” he said. “They desperately need relief, and that’s why we fought for this rent freeze.”
The Rent Stabilization Association and other landlord groups have said that if tenants received a rent freeze, the city should enact a similar freeze for owners on property taxes and utilities.
The annual rent ritual, in which a city board with a bureaucratic name meets to decide the coming year’s housing costs for millions of New Yorkers, has long been a flash point that puts the grievances of tenants and landlords on full display.
The groups’ competing interests have clashed for decades, and they fought especially hard in recent times as housing costs, and landlords’ expenses, 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 the meeting Wednesday night came amid an acute crisis that has thrust the issue of affordable housing to the forefront of daily conversations about inequality and economic survival.
The 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.
Leah Goodridge, one of the board’s tenant members, cited the protests in offering the proposal for the two-year freeze.
She said it made her concerned “to see people be silent about the pain that caused the protests we’re seeing across the world but very vocal about property damage on account of the protests.” She drew a comparison between discussions of “the pain of landlords losing money” versus “tenants facing death and a poverty abyss from the coronavirus.”
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 because landlords would not have enough income to make improvements.
Ed Shanahan contributed reporting.