Decontrol opponents part of the muddle class

NY Post, May 21, 1997

FANS of this city's rent regulations are fond of chanting that the laws work like armor to "protect" the middle class.

Great news for me! As a member in good standing of that lucky middle rung, I hit the Manhattan pavement yesterday in search of an affordable apartment -- confident those awesome regulations would aide me in my quest.

Well, guess what, New York? After spending hours scanning a broker's listings, perusing a private landlord's offerings, and tearing through the classified ads, here's a sampling of what I foundy :

Tiny one-bedrooms on decent blocks, renting at a minimum of $2,000 a month. Minimum!

As for two-bedrooms, the broker told me gently, "Where you'd feel comfortable living, they start at just over $3,000." Starting!

Finally, for a still-extortionate $1,400-per-moon, I located a one-bedroom in a ramshackle walk-up on an otherwise respectable East Side block. Guess how much apartment that kind of money buys?

"About 350 square feet," said the owner.

Hey, I wondered. Where the heck is my middle-class rent protection? But I already knew the answer.

Despite the rhetoric from the lucky ones who benefit from this city's rent rules, it is specious to declare that the laws protect the middle class. Rather, they help the mainly middle-class people who already happen to have decent apartments -- at the expense of newcomers to the city, young people seeking their first places, and all the rest of us stuck on the outside.

My visit to Manhattan Apartments, one of the larger brokerage firms, quashed any lingering doubts.

Even before I arrived, the broker warned me over the phone: "According to the New York Times, one-bedrooms on the Upper West Side average $1,900-and-change a month. Two-bedrooms $2,900-and-change."

When I got there, the news went from bad to downright ugly.

My needs are reasonable: A space for a working couple -- no kids, no pets -- in a solid building in a safe neighborhood.

The broker looked skeptical as he scrolled through his computerized listings.

"This one is too good to be true!" he declared.

The "deal" to which he referred was a two-bedroom, two-bath duplex on West 89th Street. An absolute steal -- at $2,450!

"Must be small," he warned. Turns out, the actual living space was too miserly for two. But by that point, $2,450 sounded so cheap, I almost reconsidered.

Next to me, three models from out of state, looking to share a place in Greenwich Village, weren't doing any better. Their excitement over a $2,100 East Village walk-up summoned a sneer from their broker.

"You've heard of Alphabet City?" he warned. "It is, to put it mildly, a hell-hole."

And there you have it. Live in Hell. For $2,100 a month.

Does it have to be this way?

For decades, economists -- liberal and conservative alike -- have shouted that rent controls inflate rents in New York City. They do so by forcing people to hang on to apartments long after they've outgrown them, to keep their low rents.

Meanwhile, the mire of regulation has so discouraged building, a recent report by the Manhattan Institute determined that fewer homes are going up today than during the Depression.

As a result, this town has the lowest vacancy rate of any major city in America. That means that on the open market -- the place where those of us without real-estate connections or a grandmother willing to bequeath her place -- rents are frightfully, and artificially, high.

Whom does that hurt?

As John Tierney reported so eloquently in the May 4 Sunday New York Times Magazine, "While immigrants are crowded into bunks in illegal boarding houses in the slums, upper-middle-class locals pay low rents to live in good neighborhoods, often in large apartments they no longer need after their children move out."

For politicians, supporting rent control is a no-brainer: Two million beneficiaries would sooner stone to death a lawmaker than even discuss decontrol. And can you blame them?

Meanwhile, those of us who've accepted overregulated Manhattan is out of reach -- I live in a Brooklyn co-op -- don't pay sufficient attention.

The most sensible solution -- decontrolling apartments as they become vacant -- is anathema to rent-control freaks. But in the long run, that's the only way Manhattan rents might start to make any sense.

Some rents would spike initially. But ultimately, as the number of available apartments increased, the law of supply and demand would take over. This city would cease being the home of haves and have-nots.

Two million renters will disagree. But if those folks really wanted to do something to help the middle class yesterday, they shouldn't have trekked to Albany to protest decontrol.

They should have stayed down here, and helped me find an apartment. This middle-class New Yorker needs all the help she can get.

Copyright ©1997, N.Y.P. Holdings Inc.