Rent Rip-Offs Ripe for Reform

Opinion May 9, 1997

Very little lawmaking has taken place in Albany this session, though the legislators have engaged in just enough huffing and puffing to wreak havoc on the sleep patterns of hundreds of thousands of anxious tenants here in New York City.

But the craziest thing about this battle over the future of rent regulations, which cover more than 1 million apartments in the city, is that the people who are most alarmed at the thought of life after June 15 are the people who probably have the least to fear.

For months now Democratic officeholders, led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, have vowed to maintain the status quo in a system that dates back 50 years. But state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, an upstate Republican, believes that the rent laws are "government at its worst" because they stifle the free market. He wants to do away with them in four years.

Their war of nerves has left many New Yorkers fearing that soaring rents will force them to move to suburbia or worse. And it has raised concerns about just what sort of city we're creating.

For sure, one that welcomes tourists to the new Disneyized 42d St. And the financial wheeler-dealers who rake in millions on Wall Street. And the Donalds and the Marlas and the other beautiful people who grace the society and gossip pages of our august newspapers. And the big real estate interests whose generous financial largess probably has inspired Republican politicians to vigorously lead the fight against rent regulations.

Mayor Giuliani has warned that the city will suffer if lapsed rent restrictions drive out the kind of New Yorkers he knows keeps this city going. "It could become a city of more richer people and more poorer people and not a strong middle, which is necessary to a stable city," he says.

But that'll never happen because New Yorkers won't let it happen. Besides, these are politicians we're dealing with here, not martyrs, and they're beginning to budge from the extreme positions that always precede serious horse-trading.

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, the Republicans' guru, wants to protect the poor, the elderly and the disabled, while allowing rents to reach market rates when apartments become vacant. And, realizing that even that is not enough to safeguard tenants against unscrupulous landlords, he has gone further. "You've got to provide sufficient protections that landlords won't harass people and force them out," he said recently.

Even Cardinal O'Connor is getting into the act, promising to address the situation "from a moral perspective" in coming days. And just the other day, the governor promised his own soon-to-be-disclosed plan to break the stalemate in the Legislature.

The solution seems as logical as it is inevitable: Protect people who earn somewhere under $100,000 Pataki would place the ceiling at $50,000 and gradually decontrol most apartments by allowing rents to rise to market rates whenever current tenants die or move.

That rent regulations help the poor is unquestioned, but their primary beneficiaries are people who, when you really get down to it, can afford to pay more. I'm talking about the entertainers, the big shots of the upper West Side and the upper East Side and the high-profile pols who hold on to apartments in tony neighborhoods while paying only a pittance.

The funny thing is that, according to economists, once rent regulations are removed, rents will most likely decline. More apartments will be on the market, and landlords will have to compete for tenants. That's not such a bad place to be. But getting there requires politicians to stop playing games and to stop needlessly scaring us to death.