color photograph of an indoor protest for tenants' rights. people hold up posters of new york city mayor eric adam along with slogans like "roll back our rents"
Tenants and housing activists protest at Hunter College where a vote took place to raise rent for roughly 2 million New Yorkers in New York on June 21, 2023. (Photo by ALEX KENT/AFP via Getty Images)

Renters in New York City face yet another hurdle to affordable living. In June, the city’s mayor-appointed Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) approved a rent increase for rent-stabilized housing. 

Rents for more than 1 million rent-stabilized apartments will increase by 3% if they are on one-year leases. For two-year leases, rates will increase by 2.75% for the first year and 3.2% for the second year. This is the second year in a row New York City renters have faced a rent increase.

Research shows that an average median-income household in New York spends nearly 69% of its income on rent. The typical threshold for being “rent burdened” is spending at least 30% of income on rent. Housing advocates say rent increases run the risk of pricing people out of their apartments and into precarity.

Hailie Kim is an organizer who ran as Queens District 26 representative, a role that covers Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, and Astoria. While speaking to District 26 residents, Kim said she heard many concerns about housing costs. 

“I also distinctly remember a lot of people being afraid that they could no longer afford their homes,” she said. “The mayor has to understand that these are people who are his constituents and that he can’t keep putting us in this unsustainable position where our rent keeps going up every year.”

Kim’s family immigrated from Seoul to Sunnyside when she was 5 years old. She has lived in rent-stabilized housing ever since.

“I remember it impacting my family from the time I was at least 15, if not a bit younger,” she said. “Any time the rent would go up, my mom’s English is not the best, so she would get me on the phone with our landlord and have me negotiate down prices. That was something we needed to do every year.”

Rent-stabilized housing is a form of privately owned housing with checks and balances that ideally democratizes access to city living. 

While rent-stabilized housing is technically open to everyone, tenants are more likely to be low-income, senior citizens, and immigrants. Potential tenants do not need to display documentation to be eligible, which expands who can get in.

Selected, not elected

Advocates and tenants alike point to the mayor’s discretion over the makeup of the RGB as a major problem. The mayor has discretion over RGB appointees, and Mayor Eric Adams has appointed anti-tenant members in the wake of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s relatively pro-tenant RGB. Adams himself is a landlord.

When it comes to rent increases, “that’s not Mayor Adams’ doing directly, but it is his doing indirectly,” said Samuel Stein, a senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York and author of “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.” “He has created the conditions for that to happen. And his public statements have always been of the middle-of-the-road variety. ‘I understand that tenants are suffering, but landlords are suffering too,’ which conveys to the RGB members he’s appointed that he wants some rent increase, but not the highest one under discussion. And that’s basically where they landed.” 

Other rent-stabilized tenants echoed Stein’s unease with comments made by members of the panel.

“It is very concerning to me that two of Adams’ public members sided with the landlords, essentially forcing the tenant members to vote on 3% in rent increases as a harm reduction measure,” said Katelin Penner, an urban planning student and rent-stabilized tenant in Bushwick. “It is notable that one of the members that Adams has appointed has openly stated that he is against rent control in principle.”

Prism reached out to RGB chairperson Nestor Davidson, but he declined to comment.

Landlord neglect

Many renters don’t know their homes are rent-stabilized since landlords frequently do not volunteer that information. Organizers say poor access to information about rights compounds landlord neglect.

Even those who know their housing status are not connected to tenant resources. Nisha Ahmed, a recent college graduate who has lived in rent-stabilized housing in Jackson Heights her whole life, said she doesn’t feel like she has sufficient tenant protections or knowledge about the rent increase process.

“Being in a low-income neighborhood, being low-income in general, to think about the rent hikes, it’s scary,” Ahmed said. “It’s not even like we can leave. With the conditions of this apartment, that’s what’s been enticing us to leave. We’re in this standstill; we either have to deal with it or not. There’s no out for us.”

Data flaws

Stein said the rent increase was predicated on problematic data. He provided public testimony in April with his CSSNY colleague Oksana Mironova before the RGB arguing how a more complete set of numbers should support a rent freeze rather than an increase.

“The timing of the process makes it so they’re always looking at lagging data,” Stein said. A better time to convene might be the fall, he suggested, when the Department of Finance releases its findings.

Current data privileges landlords’ perspectives over those of tenants.  

Stein said there is reason to believe that the data “inflates the expenses and deflates the incomes in order to make landlords seem like they’re having a hard time,” adding that New York “routinely passes higher rent increases than those other jurisdictions.”

“We think that those two things are related,” he said.

The New York RGB weighs every single landlord expense. In contrast, Westchester, Nassau, and Kingston—other counties with RGB systems—do not. Tenants’ expenses are calculated but not weighted.

Penner pointed out that for tenants like her, whose buildings are rent stabilized through tax breaks, utility costs are still their responsibility. This also leads to unreliable data.

“Seven percent of the metric is based on rising fuel costs, which are being passed to tenants in many cases,” Penner said. “The cost is being double counted. There is a big injustice there.”

New Yorkers, neighbors

Contributing to the problems plaguing the RGB, Adams’ chief housing officer Jessica Katz left her position at the end of May shortly before the vote. Her role has been folded into the deputy mayor’s remit. Stein said this has resulted in “less attention to housing issues in City Hall.”

But on July 13, the City Council overrode the mayor’s veto of their legislation to restructure CityFHEPS vouchers, approving the use of CityFHEPS vouchers if tenants are facing eviction. Per this program, any rent costs above 30% of a tenant’s income can be covered by the city.

“That could prevent some evictions in rent-stabilized and non-rent-stabilized housing,” Stein said. It also has the potential to reduce the city-wide rent burden.

Advocates often suggest that the City Planning Commission might provide a blueprint for the Rent Guidelines Board going forward. In that case, the mayor, city advocate, and borough presidents appoint 13 members, who then go up for review by the City Council.

“The more we shift toward thinking of housing as a human right and not as a commodity, the more people will understand that this is such a grave issue,” Kim said.

Although Kim lost the District 26 primary to incumbent Julie Won, she has faith in the power of organizing. “Whatever happens, we are only going to be able to achieve things if we continue to stand in solidarity with each other. In solidarity as New Yorkers, as neighbors,” she said.

Sana Khan is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her work appears in the Oxford University Press Blog, Kajal Magazine, Brown Girl Magazine, and the Radical History Review. She is an Asian American...