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Tenants of Nassau apartments await word on rent

Thousands of tenants of rent-regulated apartments in Nassau County have been waiting for months to find out how much rent they're supposed to be paying.

The Nassau Rent Guidelines Board - which sets annual limits on rent increases for some 13,000 private housing units - is now seven months past its deadline to decide on rate increases for the 12 months starting last October.

In the absence of action by the board setting the maximum rent increases, landlords were allowed to raise rents in October based on the caps for the previous year: 2 percent for one-year leases and 3.5 percent for two-year leases, according to the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which enforces the board's guidelines.

The caps apply to rental housing that qualifies under the state Emergency Tenant Protection Act.

The board missed its July deadline because it had refused to meet for almost a year, fearing fresh legal action in a lawsuit stemming from rent increase caps set five years ago.

A State Supreme Court justice in Nassau struck down those caps in 2006. The board had set two caps based on income, and the tenant group argued that tenants subject to the higher rate increases - 5.25 percent for one-year leases and 7.25 percent for two-year leases - bore an unreasonable burden, effectively subsidizing the low-income category.

After learning that the state would cover their legal costs, board members last month voted 5-2 to eliminate the low-income caps and extend the 5.25 and 7.25 percent increases to all tenants.

On Wednesday, at the first of three public hearings on the 2009-10 rent adjustments, tenants testified before board members in Long Beach. While some said it would be fair for the board to enact the same 2 percent and 3.5 percent caps, others urged the board not to permit any rent hikes. The board has nine seats but one of two seats for tenant representatives is vacant.

Long Beach Tenants Coalition president Michael Schnier said those increases were "reasonable" but exhorted board members not to raise the cap any higher. "I wouldn't be unhappy if they remained at those numbers," said Schnier, who also is president of the 25 Franklin Blvd. Tenant Association.

When David Paris of 465 Shore Rd. asked board members, "Does this board ever consider decreasing [rates] or is it automatically always an increase?" Barry Stein, one of two board members who represents property owners, replied: "It's not as simple as to say 'no increase.' Landlords have obligations, too."

Landlords are scheduled to testify at the next hearing Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Great Neck Plaza Village Hall.

The third hearing is set for Feb. 24, and the board is to vote on the rent adjustments March 3. Both are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Hempstead Town Hall.

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