May 23, 2006
Nassau County Legislator Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead) joined his fellow Majority members of the Nassau County Legislature and tenants of rent-stabilized apartments recently to call on the administration of Governor George Pataki to act on two appointments to the Nassau County Rent Guidelines Board that the administration has bottled up, one of them for more than a year.
In March 2005, the County Legislature voted to send the appointment of Rev. Mark Lukens as a public member of the RGB to Pataki's housing agency, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR). Shortly after that, DHCR called Rev. Lukens in for an interview. But now, 14 months after the appointment was sent to the agency, DHCR has not acted.
The Legislature chose Rev. Lukens, who specializes in housing rehabilitation projects, to replace John Mastromarino, Comptroller of the Town of Hempstead, whose term expired a year and a half ago.
In March of this year, the Legislature sent DHCR the appointment of Martin Melkonian, a professor of economics at Hofstra University, to replace public member Jack Mevorach, whose term expired last December 31. Melkonian has yet to be called in for an interview.
All members of the Rent Guidelines Board are appointed by DHCR Commissioner, currently Judith Calogero, but the agency can appoint only persons chosen by the County Legislature. The RGB consists of nine members, two representing landlords, two representing tenants, and five so-called public members. Holdover members serve until their successors are appointed.
"Renters should not be treated as second-class citizens,” Legislator Abrahams said. “They have the right to be represented by someone who has their best interests at heart.”
Abrahams was joined at a recent news conference at the County Executive and Legislative Building by Presiding Officer Judy Jacobs (Woodbury), Deputy Presiding Officer Roger Corbin (D-Westbury), and Legislators Lisanne Altmann (D-Great Neck), Jeffrey Toback (D-Oceanside), Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick) and Dave Mejias (D-North Massapequa), and a dozen tenants organized by the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition.
"The Pataki administration wants to keep the holdovers on the board because they are guaranteed votes for high rent increases," stated Michael McKee, Nassau County organizer for Tenants & Neighbors. "And it is high time for public members to be appointed who can bring some professionalism to the board. The current public members, with one exception, do not have a clue about the real life experience of landlords and tenants, nor any understanding of housing or housing economics."
Paul Shapiro, a retiree who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment in Great Neck Plaza, pointed out that the Nassau rent board has adopted very high rent increases for three years in a row. "Mastromarino and Mevorach do not care if tenants are bankrupted by the rent increases they pass," he said. "We know of many tenants who have left their apartments because the rent-stabilized rent has become so high they cannot pay it. Others are holding on by their fingernails. The board only looks at landlords' operating costs, while ignoring the question of affordability."
Last year's rent increases were 5.25 and 7.25 percent for one-year and two-year lease renewals, preceded by 5 and 8 percent three years ago and 4.25 and 6.25 percent two years ago. Tenants whose leases expire can choose a one-year or two-year renewal.
Last year the board adopted "low income" guidelines of 1 and 2 percent for tenants who can prove to their landlord that their annual household income is less than $24,000. However, virtually no landlords have included this option in their lease renewal offers (only two landlords have done so, according to DHCR), instead offering renewals only at the higher rates. In addition, many tenants who are qualified for the lower rate do not ask for it because they would have to give the landlord their tax return or other proof of income.
Tenants & Neighbors sued the RGB over the 2003 guidelines, resulting in an appellate division decision last May that, while it did not overturn the guidelines themselves, found that the board had failed to comply with the statutory requirement to adopt findings to justify the guidelines.
In January Tenants & Neighbors sued to overturn the 2005 guidelines of 5.25 and 7.25 percent, citing once again the failure of the board to adopt meaningful findings, as well as several errors of law made by the board. This lawsuit is pending in State Supreme Court.
The Nassau RGB has scheduled public hearings on May 23, May 30, and June 20, and has scheduled a vote on guidelines for June 27. These guidelines will apply to leases that come up for renewal in the year beginning October 1, 2006.