Rent Regulation Deadline: Stop the Clock!

Charles J. Hynes, Kings County District Attorney
The New York Law Journal, May 21, 1997
The impending expiration of rent regulations has prompted some political leaders to propose quick fixes for a system that has been in operation for more than 50 years.

Why rush to judgment? Why not stop the clock, and take the time to reach a solution that is just and fair?

Surely, any change in the law which affects the quality of life of more than 1 million families in New York City and other communities warrants careful analysis. There is more than money at stake. As John Cardinal O'Connor so eloquently observed, ''The moral imperative, after all, is that dignified housing is a human right.''

One quick fix would make it a crime for landlords to harass tenants in order to force them out of their apartments. As District Attorney of the state's most densely populated county, which has 286,000 rent-regulated units, I find it hard to believe that such an offense would be enforceable and prevent failures to provide adequate heat or hot water or to make needed repairs. Instead, I foresee our already overwhelmed civil and criminal courts being swamped with thousands of additional landlord-tenant disputes and petty criminal cases.

Another proposed change in the rent laws would eliminate protections for persons whose annual income is more than a pre-set amount. Currently, an apartment can be decontrolled if a tenant has an annual income of $250,000 per year for two consecutive years and the rent is above $2,000. Governor Pataki's compromise would set the annual income level at $175,000. The theory of income limits is that families who earn this amount of money should be able to afford a market rent. If they could not, they would have to move.

This theory is faulty for two reasons. First, it ignores the high cost of living in New York City and surrounding communities and the reality that most middle-class families now need to earn more than $100,000 yearly to meet their household obligations and college tuition costs. Second, the character and quality of life in New York City would certainly change if middle-class families could no longer afford to live here. We would become a two-tier city, the rich and the poor.

Clearly, families who earn $175,000 or $100,000 are not impoverished, but neither can they be termed, as some politicians have, wealthy. By analogy, many middle-class families in the suburbs and in upstate communities live in homes that are now worth more than $100,000 or $175,000. A generation ago this would have been a sure sign of wealth. But in today's economy no one would seriously suggest that families living in $100,000 or $175,000 homes should be denied deductions for mortgage interest or real propery taxes because they are too ''wealthy.''

The argument for placing income restrictions on rent regulations is undercut further when one considers the Republican proposals to reduce school taxes for property owners. Other than a higher exemption for seniors with income less than $60,000 per year, the School Tax Relief (STAR) proposal contains no income restrictions at all. As a result, a typical taxpayer in Westchester County, where the median value of a home is $260,000, will receive a tax saving of $1,130, while a typical taxpayer in Chautauqua County, where the median home value is $50,000, will receive a savings of $230. If there is no income restriction for homeowners, is it fair to have an income restriction for renters?

If middle-class homeowners throughout the state are given relief from the crushing burden of paying local taxes to their own school districts, the argument is equally compelling that middle-class families in New York City should not be forced to pay one-third to one-half of their disposable income to remain in their apartments.

The implementation of income limits on rent regulation will affect the quality of life in New York City. Widening the gap between the nearly 1 million New Yorkers who receive some form of public assistance, and the remaining New Yorkers who can still afford to live here, would intensify the competition for essential services and accentuate the lines of demarcation between rich and poor neighborhoods. The removal of rent protection might be a boon to the private schools in New York City, but it will have a devastating effect on an already overburdened public school system, if many thousands of middle-class families can no longer afford to live here and provide support to their local schools.

Cardinal O'Connor and State Senator Martin Connor have urged formation of a blue-ribbon panel to study rent regulation. This is a fine proposal. Let each side make its case, in public. This would be a far better way to resolve this complex issue than to act in haste under the pressure of an arbitrary deadline.