Low-Income Tenant Advocates Challenge NYC Rent Guidelines Board for Imposing "A Poor Tax"
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined lawyers and tenants for a press conference on City Hall steps. At the podium is Judith Goldiner, Supervising Attorney of the Civil Practice Law Reform Unit. To her right are Ellen Davidson and Afua Atta-Mensah, staff attorneys in the Civil Law Reform Unit

The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services of New York filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court against the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). The advocates seek to strike down what has been characterized as “a poor tax” against low-income tenants who have lived in an apartment for more than six years and pay less than $1,000 a month in rent.

The law suit charges that the RGB exceeded its statutory authority when, on June 19, it adopted the 2008 Apartment and Loft Law #40, a supplemental adjustment for a new sub-class of housing accommodations. The RGB plan provided for renewal increases of 4.5 and 8.5 percent for one-and two-year renewal increases respectively. It also provided for a supplemental increase applicable to persons who have lived in an apartment for more than six years and pay less than $1,000 in rent. These tenants are to pay increases of no less than $45 or $85 for one-and two-year renewals, which often results in a high percentage increase than what is allowed under this year’s RGB guidelines.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined the lawyers and tenants for a press conference on City Hall steps.

“Rent-stabilized tenants are under attack from all sides, and this unprecedented increase on longtime, low-income residents could very well drive some residents out of their homes,” said Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “This rent hike proves once and for all that the RGB is completely out of touch and needs to be reformed.”

Mercedes Casado, 50, is one of the plaintiffs in the law suit. Ms. Casado, a home attendant who is employed by Union Settlement Home Care, has lived in her Inwood apartment since 1992. Her current rent is $739.31. As of January 1, her rent will increase by $85 to $824.31, a more than 11 percent increase. With this increase, Ms. Casado’s rent will eat up 53 percent of her income. She will have trouble paying for her utility bills and it will be more difficult for her to afford the rising costs of food. Her apartment is badly in need of repair, with broken windows, a hole in the bathroom floor and a clogged sink. Her landlord has not made repairs.

Another plaintiff, Paul Hertgen, has lived in the same Staten Island apartment for 17 years. Mr. Hertgen, a union truck driver, was also the primary caregiver to his wife. In January, 2007, she lost her battle with cancer. His rent is currently $685 a month but will increase by 12 percent to $770 in October.

The plaintiffs are asking the Court to vacate the portion of Order #40, which provides for the supplemental increase, and to declare that the RGB does not have the authority to create a new class of housing accommodations and/or create rent adjustments not specifically authorized by the legislature.

New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition has joined the plaintiffs in their suit.

Attorneys handling the case include: Afua Atta-Mensah and Ellen Davidson, staff attorneys with The Legal Aid Society; Judith Goldiner, Supervising Attorney in the Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit; and John C. Gray, Edward Josephson and Rachel Hannaford of South Brooklyn Legal Services, Inc.

“In a time when New Yorkers are struggling more than ever, the Rent Guidelines Board exceeded its authority by punishing New Yorkers for remaining in their homes and neighborhoods and for being poor,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney in The Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit.

“The law does not permit the RGB to place the heaviest rent burdens on the shoulders of NY’s most vulnerable residents,” said Edward Josephson, Director of Litigation for South Brooklyn Legal Services. “RGB’s unprecedented longevity increase, unveiled on the eve of its final vote and pushed through with unseemly haste, should be just as swiftly annulled by the courts.”

“The Rent Guidelines Board's arbitrary decision to raise rents on New Yorkers who have done nothing more than make a long-term home and create a community in which to raise their families, is shockingly unfair, “said Afua Atta-Mensah, a staff attorney in The Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit. “It also violates the law and thus must be overturned.“