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White Plains: Vote to Raise Rent Gets Heated

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – It appears that everyone who attended the tenant and owner debate at the Westchester County Rent Guidelines Board left dissatisfied after the board passed a vote to increase rent throughout the county on rent-regulated apartments. The meeting, which ran for nearly three hours and included three recesses, became so contentious that court security officers were called to restore order.

The crowd of about 80 people grew restless and continuously interrupted Genevieve Roche, one of two tenant representatives on the board, while she gave a speech for nearly 30 minutes that was deemed “repetitive” by many audience members.

When Joseph Whelan, chairman of the board, asked Roche to wrap up her speech, boos and shouts of “that’s enough” and “respect the chair” echoed throughout the audience. Meanwhile, a landlord-sympathizer alerted security officers at the Westchester County Court right as Whelan threatened to have Roche removed.

“This board is sworn to follow the laws of New York State and that means we are public officers and that means you respect the chair,” Whelan said. “Roche, you have antagonized numerous people. You’ve antagonized me … Will you sit down or does someone have to escort you to your chair?”

Roche asked for permission to read two more sentences, which was granted.

During her attempt to finish up, jeers from the crowd punctuated her speech. However, she managed to say, “It would be a shame if a little foot stomping and name calling dissuaded us again from once again considering objectively the data, the policy considerations, and the plain economic realities that should lead us once again to pass zero guideline or as close to zero as possible.”

Both tenant and landlord supporters stomped, booed, and screamed allegations of skewed statistics as board members presented. The board, which consists of two tenant representatives, two landlord representatives, and four public representatives, passed no rent increases last year for housing units regulated by the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (EPTA).

Still, Roche wasn’t the only board member to dispute Whelan’s authority. When the chairman pressured tenant representative Rev. Emma Loftin-Woods to finish her speech, she told him, “You are the chairman of this board, but you are not my God. You don’t shut me up.”

A short while later, landlord representative Eliot Cherson, was having trouble speaking over the crowd. Court officers returned, one of whom threatened to break up the meeting.

“We’re going to have to make everyone go,” said the officer. “We can’t have this.”

After three hours and three recesses, a 5-2 vote passed a 2.5 percent rent increase with a $25 minimum increase for one-year leases and a 4 percent increase with a $40 minimum increase for two-year leases subject to ETPA. Both of the negative votes came from tenant representatives. The chairman did not vote.

Seemingly, neither the tenants nor the landlords were pleased with the outcome.

Michael Mascolo, 74, who owns 17 rent-regulated apartments in his White Plains building, said the increase was “not enough.”

“We have to accept what they voted on,” said Mascolo, who has owned his 34 Merrit Ave. building since 1917. “We have no choice. It’s better than zero-zero. That’s all I can say.”

There are 3,014 housing units in White Plains subject to EPTA, which was enacted in the 1970s to protect affordable housing in tight markets by having the government regulate rent increases.

Tenants, including David Locklear of Mount Vernon, accused the board of “blatantly saying that peoples' incomes should not even be a factor.”

“For senior citizens [the increases] are going to hurt a lot,” said Locklear, 58, who works for a market research company. “They are not getting any increases in social security. I know seniors, personally, who are eating cat food. There are people who are getting limited food stamps and going to soup kitchens and are still not able to eat. I know because I volunteer at a couple of soup kitchens.”

The Westchester Rent Guidelines Board's rate increases will go into effect October 1, provided that state senators extend rent-regulation laws. Albany is expected to decide on the matter by Tuesday night.

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