Haste Will Waste Rent Reforms

Rent control, New York's experiment with Marxist economics, is now over 50 years old, born as an emergency response to the WWII housing crunch. Change is needed.

But it took a half century to make this mess. It's going to take time to fix it. Gov. Pataki's call for going slow is right on target.

Responding to State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's new plan to end virtually all regulations within two years, Pataki said, "I don't think in the long-term that rent control works." He added, "But you can't simply decontrol a system that millions of people presently rely on." Amen.

There is no question that, in theory, New York would be better off with a free housing market. It makes sense economically and legally. The hard part is getting there. Hard because there is no more emotional issue in this city than rent regulation. There are about 100,000 controlled units and a million covered by the separate rent stabilization system.

That means housing for millions of tenants and investments involving thousands of owners. For local officials, rent regulation is the third rail of politics touch it and you're toast.

That could explain Pataki's distancing himself from Bruno, his usual ally. It could also be a game of good cop-bad cop, with Pataki trying to come off looking reasonable and moderate. Whatever the reason, he's taken the proper course.

Bruno's plan for vacancy decontrol starting in June and an end to regulations two years later, except for the disabled and low-income seniors, moves far too quickly. Vacancy decontrol, which wouldn't effect any current tenant and which has Pataki favored, twinned with the 1993 luxury decontrol, is one promising option. It would protect tenants while allowing owners to raise rents to market levels when an apartment is empty.

It is just the kind of half-measure that's needed simply because most New Yorkers pay so much of their incomes for housing. It's hard to see how lifting controls will do anything to alleviate the lack of affordable housing for moderate and low-income families.

Bruno promises to put forth proposals for new housing programs. He would have been wiser to do that at the same time he vowed to dismantle rent protections.

All of which makes Pataki's tone and reasoning so attractive: "I want to have an intelligent, comprehensive approach to finding that common ground between the status quo and ending rent control precipitously," the governor said.

Original Story Date: 12/13/96
Original Story Section: Public Forum