As surely as sunset follows sunrise, it wasn’t any surprise that the Kingston Rent Guidelines Board (KRGB) would get sued.
The charge of the board was to give relief to a class of renters throughout the city by deciding an annual rental rate based on the concept of a fair market was sure to be unpopular with the affected landlords.
Even more alarming to them would the concept that some renters could challenge rent increases retroactively, going back through a to-be-decided window of time referred to as a lookback period.
The decisions of the KRGB carry financial consequences, presenting renters with ammunition to challenge the legality of rates and of increases.
Enter Richard Lanzarone.
Lanzarone had attended the first public hearing on October 2 to see for himself which way the wind would blow. He did not like what he heard. He took legal action two days later, leading the charge on behalf of a consortium of seven LLCs and a couple, Robert and Kathleen Dittus.
The litigation brought against the City of Kingston by Lanzarone attempts to reverse the housing emergency declaration of the Kingston Common Council. It alleges that the common council’s resolution was unlawful, and that the housing vacancy study performed by the city was “deeply flawed, mathematically inexact, factually incorrect, deceptive and at times embarrassingly unprofessional.”
Under that law, plaintiffs must prove that the actual vacancy rate exceeds five percent. A housing study performed by director Bartek Starodaj’s, Office of Housing Initiatives, had claimed the rental vacancy rate for multifamily buildings with six or more units was 1.57 percent. The common council duly declared a housing emergency, and mayor Steve Noble went along with the action.
The finding triggered the protections of the state Emergency Tenant Protection Act.
Nine members of the public, two of them landlords, were appointed to the Rent Guidelines Board, which discussed the rent regulations affecting landlords who rent out six or more units from buildings dating to circa 1974.
A litany of complaints
The KRGB held its second public hearing on Saturday, November 5 at the Kingston Library.
Lanzarone was again in attendance.
Overwhelmingly pro-rent reduction sentiment was on loud display through the four-hour public testimonials. About 80 people showed up to cheer and applaud between speeches or snap their fingers mid-speech to signal approval.
The public speakers painted pictures of scurrilous landlords, moldy apartments, gas leaks, rotting food, empty fire extinguishers, promised renovations never delivered, and every other stripe of predatory behavior under the sun.
Two months after his wife found out she was pregnant, said John Kane, the building in which they rented was sold. Two days after that, they received the eviction notice. “Our old apartment at 438 Abeel Street, ” said Kane, “is an Airbnb now. $200 a night.”
Joan Cordon, a tenant at the Stony Run apartment complex, recalled the three months she had to wash her dishes in her bathtub because her landlord didn’t get around to fixing her backed-up sink. “There’s been three different owners since I started renting there,” she said. “Not one of them has been any good.”
Brenda Miller, a tenant at Waterfront on the Strand, the large red-brick apartment complex in the Rondout, mentioned an array of fees and unusual billing practices. “The landlord billed and charged me for water and sewer separately,” she said. “And there’s no meter, they just come up with an amount… I also had a ten-dollar charge for garbage removal, which eventually became $25 for gourmet garbage removal. They also made me pay, because I don’t have a job, I’m an artist and kind of older, they insisted that I pay them a full year’s rent.”
Demanding a year’s rent upfront is illegal in New York State.
Stony Run on Hurley Avenue was repeatedly singled out for derision by speakers and board members. Ward 1 councilmember Barbara Hill mentioned the apartment complex in her moment at the microphone. “Stony Run is the worst-case scenario,” said Hill. “They violate a lot of tenant laws. The front door was always locked to me, but I was able to infiltrate Stony Run anyway. A tenant gave me a map. I was able to see the conditions there. Horrible.”
Each speaker delivered their own story of landlord complaints. Again and again, the subject always returned to the portion of income paid to make rent.
The board asked each speaker whether they supported a rent reduction. All agreed they did.
Fostering public understanding
Dark murmurs ran through the crowd when Richard Lanzarone was called to the microphone. “Aren’t you suing the board?” board member Carol Soto asked.
He said he was.
“So don’t you feel that you’ve been subverting a democratic process that’s going on here?”
He did not feel that way. He said the city was acting illegally.
“If you view this board as illegitimate, why are you providing public comment?”
“Just so that the public will understand,” responded Lanzarone, ” that they’ve been perhaps fed disinformation, and to reset their expectations for what you are actually allowed to do.”
If Lanzarone, point man for 40 owners of 59 buildings in the Hudson Valley, was looking to be called a liar, shouted at and booed, he succeeded.
The board extended his time to compensate for the time lost due to the catcalling.
When all was said and done and the hours had gone by, a 30 percent rent reduction and 2019 as the year to set for the lookback policy were the numbers that kept coming up.
Letitia James to the fore
The board adjourned to another room to take the advice of corporation counsel. They would surely need legal advice.
When they came back out, board chair Noah Kippley-Ogman made an announcement.
“The Kingston rent guidelines board,” said Ogman,“ requests that the DHCR (Division of Housing and Community Renewal) send a letter to the New York attorney general’s office requesting that the attorney general represent the Kingston rent guideline board in the current litigation regarding Hudson Valley Property Owners Inc. et al. vs. City of Kingston et al.”
The board was calling in state attorney general Letitia James.