Panel weighs the lowest rent hike in city's history


Tenants in the city's 900,000 rent-stabilized apartments are facing what could be the smallest increase ever thanks to cheaper fuel, a warm winter -- and a mayoral election.

The Rent Guidelines Board is considering increases as low as a measly 1.5 percent for new one-year leases, based on the latest index of landlord costs released yesterday.

"It may be a record-breaking number in the history of the Rent Guidelines Board," conceded Joseph Strasburg, director of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlords group.

In the 27 years since the board has been setting rents for stabilized apartments, the smallest rent hikes were the 2 and 4 percent ones, for one- and two-year leases, granted in 1994 and 1995.

Sources said rent increases will likely fall between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent for a one-year lease. Figures for two-year leases were not immediately available.

"This year because the mayor is running for re-election, they're going to keep the rent increase low," predicted Michael McKee of the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition.

The Rent Guidelines Board uses an annual Price Index of Operating Costs to figure out how much landlords can raise rents.

Last year, a frigid winter and rising fuel costs pushed rents up 5 percent for a one-year lease and 7 percent for a two-year lease, the steepest since 1989.

City economists have calculated the price landlords paid for a "market basket" of goods and services inched up an average of 2.4 percent since April 1996.

The index breaks down prices on dozens of commodities and services that landlords buy, from fuel oil to toilet seats. Fuel held steady, but toilet seats jumped 3.24 percent.

If landlords are to get the same rate of return, rents would have to go up 1.6 percent for a one-year lease and 2.2 percent for a two-year lease.

Strasburg said the rent increases being discussed fall far short of what landlords need to maintain their buildings. And he called the numbers "political."

"It's clear this board is a very political board appointed by the mayor," Strasburg said.

Board Chairman Edward Hochman said the final figure will be determined by the price index and testimony from landlord and tenant groups expected next week, not politics.

With the future of rent laws being battled in Albany, the city's annual fight over increases seems like a sideshow this year.

"The main battle for us is in Albany," McKee said. "Conceivably, the final vote on these rent increases could be after the rent laws expire."

As always, both sides squawked about the rent raises.

"There shouldn't be any increase," insisted McKee, who blasted the use of a price index to set rents.

Strasburg said 2 percent wouldn't be nearly enough.

"What other commodity can you continue to produce when you lock somebody into a 2 percent increase?" he said.

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