Landlord Sees Systemic Injustice

NY Daily News, June 13, 1997
Today's rent control dispatch comes from Second Ave., where Eva Matischak grew up with seven people to an apartment in the same Yorkville building she now manages. A former renter, Matischak knows tenants need protection. She has nothing against the idea of rent control.

It's the practice she doesn't understand, not when she has to rent a two-bedroom for $85.29 a month which is about a third of what she spends to park her car.

The rent-controlled apartment, 4-N, is a railroad flat up three flights of stairs. It includes an eat-in kitchen with a washing machine, a decent-size living room, and an anteroom big enough to be a second bedroom. There are six such units in the building on Second Ave., which also contains a restaurant.

Her tenants include a film technician who pays $1,000, a couple of stockbrokers at $1,650, lawyers who pay $1,350, and a retired couple whose rent-controlled rent is $333.87.

If state rent laws expired tomorrow, says Matischak, she wouldn't raise any of their rents. "I'd leave them alone. They've all been good, decent people."

The woman who lives in 4-N is another story. Matischak wouldn't raise her rent. She'd evict her, that is, if she could.

In this case, what exists between landlord and tenant is not business anymore, it's personal. The tenant claims Matischak, whose family bought the building in the late 1960s, has been harassing her for years. Matischak says the only abuse is the tenant's abuse of that bureaucratic beast that landlords and renters alike would agree to call The System.

"Actually, I don't like her, but I don't blame her, either," said Matischak. "I blame The System."

"It's an unfair system," concedes the tenant, Viola Canovis. " . . . It's not my fault if I pay $85 . . .

"I'm not Mia Farrow, but Mia Farrow had 10 rooms on Central Park West and no one cared. Ed Koch had an apartment in the Village. What about me? There should be proper housing for people with my finances."

No doubt. The question is, in a city where the best real estate ads are obituaries, does an $85 two-bedroom on the upper East Side constitute "proper housing"?

Canovis describes herself as a "part-time secretary." She is in her 50s, she said, and has lived in the building for 29 years. She and her husband split up in 1984. A couple of years later, Matischak became the managing agent. Her mother was no longer up to the task.

In the course of Matischak's efforts to evict Canovis, then paying $162 a month, it was learned that the apartment was not registered with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

DHCR ordered Canovis' rent reduced to $55.25, the maximum allowed for Apartment 4-N as of Aug. 1, 1970.

Matischak says DHCR lost her paper work, not once, but three times. She says it doesn't pay to pursue her case in the bureaucracy. She has raised Canovis' rent as per the guidelines. "Seven per cent of $85 is nothing compared to what a lawyer charges by the hour," she says. "Really, I'm not against rent control, just insanity."

An $85 two-bedroom may be a statistical anomaly. Such stories are heard as often as "My Landlord's a Monster!"

Not even the most dogmatic free marketeers are advocating evictions. And not many people want to see all of Manhattan become as splendidly boring as, say, Sutton Place. But after 50 years of rent control, The System still lacks sense.

There's still an abundance of overcrowded, undermaintained slums. Meanwhile, well-to-do New Yorkers making in excess of $200,000 a year are "protected" from the free market.

The city's political orthodoxy pretends that the law is just fine as is, that rent control is a matter of principle.

"There is no principle," says Matischak.

Except self-interest, political as well as financial. On that, landlord and tenant could agree.

"If she gives me a good buyout," says Canovis, "I'm gone."