COOPER UNION — The city's Rent Guidelines Board voted to increase rents on 1 million rent-stabilized apartments Thursday night by the lowest margin in recent memory.
After mounting criticism that members were too aligned with the real estate industry, the nine-member panel voted 5-to-4 to increase rents by 2 percent or $20 (whichever is higher) for one-year leases and 4 percent or $40 (whichever is higher) for two-year leases.
This year's increase is the lowest in at least seven years, according to City Comptroller John Liu. Last year, the board voted to increase one-year leases by 3.75 percent and two-year leases by 7.25 percent.
Thursday's vote came at the end of a rowdy hearing inside Cooper Union's Great Hall, during which hundreds of tenants waved signs demanding "No Increase!" and drowned out board members with singing, boos and Occupy Wall Street-style chants.
"Rent Freeze! Rent Freeze!" they shouted again and again, making it nearly impossible to hear most of the discussion by the board, which includes a mix of tenant and landlord representatives.
Tenants' rights groups and other advocates had been pressing the board for a compete rent freeze, arguing that residents are still suffering from a weak economy and that stabilized tenants are already paying an ever-higher percentage of their incomes on rents.
Tenant member Adriene Holder said the situation had become "devastating."
"It's just so much that these households just cannot continue to bear," she said, slamming the board's increases over the past four years as "bordering on extreme and profound neglect."
Owners, however, argued that their costs continue to mount, thanks to the rising cost of heating oil and higher water and sewer rates. The Rent Stabilization Association of N.Y.C., which represents property owners, had requested a 5 percent hike on one-year leases and a 9 percent bump on two-year leases, plus a bonus for oil-heated buildings.
After the vote, disappointed owners complained the increase would amount to an average of just $240 a year — not nearly enough to cover rising costs, they said.
"Every time the City Council and the mayor implement a new law, somebody pays for it, and right now it's completely borne by the owner," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners.
But Maxine Zeifman, 85, who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side, said that residents can't bear to keep on paying more every year.
"It's very, very tough. You know, they're killing the middle class," said the retired psychoanalyst, who worried the city is driving out people like artists and scientists in favor of the super-rich.
After the vote, Maria Valdez, 72, who has lived in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side for the past 40 years, said she was disappointed by the increase, but relieved by its size.
"We can't complain, but we're not satisfied," Valdez said.
Anne Cunningham, who has lived in her Upper East Side building since the late '70s, also praised the board's decision, which included a 0 percent increase on SRO rents.
"I'm very happy. It's a very fair vote," the 76-year-old said.
Board Chairman Jonathan Kimmel said striking the right balance between landlords and tenants was always a challenge, but he felt this year's decision was especially fair.
"I hope that they're not as miserable as they could be," he said.