A Moral Reflection On Rent Control
JOHN CARDINAL O'CONNOR, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York


I offer here one man's perspective on the debate being waged on questions of regulating and deregulating rent. It does not pretend to be inflallible. Moral reasoning may not be helpfully separated from reality; particularly, in this case, economic and political reality; As Pope John Paul II has put it "To be sure, there is no single model for organizing the politics and economics of human freedom. Different cultures and different historical experiences give rise to different forms of public life in a free and reasonable society." [5 Oct. 1995, to the General Assembly of the United Nations]

I suggest this caution, in part, because in my own efforts to sort out the issues, I have studied and listened to a number of conflicting opinions and read a good bit of conflicting data....

The more I study and listen the more I see the basic question before us in this democratic society: "How are we to live together?"

Which brings me to the heart of the question about rent regulations and then to what may be well indispensable to a resolution of conflicts. As I understand it, the key question about rent regulations is startlingly simple: "Do rent regulations advance or impede the availability of affordable housing?" The moral imperative, after all, is that dignified housing is a human right. If it is not a hunaan right, for poor, middle class, wealthy, whatever the ethnic or racial diversity, employed or unemployed, landlord or tenant, then the argument is economic or political, rather than necessarily moral. If, as the Church teaches, dignified housing is a human right for everyone, then housing must be reasonably affordable for everyone. Responsible landlords whom I know personally and consider to be individuals of integrity, tell me that vacancy decontrol, for example, is absolutely essential, if many landlords are to survive, keep buildings in repair and meet the needs of tenants, and if the supply of affordable housing is to increase. I have met, however, with responsible representatives of tenants who hold the opposite viewpoint, who also seem to me to be individuals of integrity; and who state:

Vacancy Decontrol means the destruction of all rent and eviction protection laws.

Vacancy Decontrol was in effect for three years, from 1971 to 1974. It was such a disaster that the State Legislature and Governor repealed it in 1974.

Under Vacancy Decontrol:

These are diametrically opposed positions to those of responsible landlords. Yet in speaking with proponents of each of these positions, I have found remarkably little rancor; at least in my presence. In fact, tenant associations have told me of some tenant who victimize landlords, while some landlords have told me of some landlords who victimize tenants. Even more remarkably, perhaps, both sides have told me they would like to get together on the issues in an appropriate forum to try to resolve them justly and amicably.

The Archdiocese of New York knows something about the poor. In our inner-city schools, more than 60 percent of our youngsters are from families below the poverty line, more than 60 percent from single parent families, some 85 percent black and Hispanic. Their families sacrifice a great deal to keep them in our schools, and I personally spend a lot of my time begging in order to supplement tuition charges, which we keep as low as possible. Those families should not be forced to choose between schools of their choice, to help their youngsters break out of the cycle of poverty on the one hand, and decent housing on the other...

I hear people speak of "trade-offs" by which they mean that everyone has to choose. If for example, you want to live in the city you have to pay accordingly, such observers would argue. That's morality and economics in a vacuum. How long will it take to get to work if you live far from your job? How much will it cost? How much more time are you away from your children? What is to be traded off? Food, education, healthcare? These are human rights....

In my judgment therefore, because the human rights of all are involved, the morally right thing would be to include representatives of all in addressing the issues before making substantive changes over however long a period of time. I would hope that appropriate governmental authority might consider it wise to call for a broadly representative body, challenging both landlords and tenants, poor, middle class, wealthy, of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, most particularly of New York City, the area most deeply affected, but from other areas of the state, as well. Their mandate? To ask themselves if they agree on the 'worth and dignity and the human rights of every individual in society'. Ask themselves if they believe that affordable housing is a human right for everyone. Ask themselves how affordable housing can be achieved, sustained and fostered workably within our political and economic system. Ask themselves what sacrifices they are prepared to make, what compromises they are willing to share. Ask themselves how we can live together as a people. Ask themselves as landlord associations and as tenant associations if they are willing to "police" themselves to prevent or reduce abuses. Ask themselves what they honestly believe to be not simply the easy, or the selfserving, or the profitable thing to do - although reasonable self-interest and reasonably profitable ventures are quite legitimate - but the morally right thing to do. Other questions will follow in their sincere efforts to share their talents, their experience, their goodness. Presumably all conclusions would be submitted to the convening authority. If legislative action were then necessary to respond, it could be taken. Such would seem to be the democratic process....

In the meanwhile, although legislative procedures and technical know-how are obviously the prerogatives of legislators, perhaps any anticipated deadline on the current system could be postponed by the equivalent of the "continuing resolution" used to permit governtnent spending despite deadlock on a new budget. Smarter people than I will know how such delay could be provided without forcing legislators to be seeming to abandon positions which they believe integrity requires them to have taken.

Let us all pay for those government and civic leaders most immediately involved in trying to come up with morally right, economically effective and politically prudent solutions to the debate about rent regulations. Their efforts have our good will....