Stop playing games with rent control

New York Post, June 10, 1997
With a scant five days to go before most of New York's rent laws expire, elected Democrats in Albany and their allies in the city appear finally to have formulated a strategy: Foment terror among the elderly and infirm, while hoping that the ensuing fall-out damages Gov. Pataki and his allies.

This is a dangerous game. The present rent system needs a top-to-bottom overhaul. Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the country, and for good reason. Nonetheless, abrupt expiration of the city's rent laws is in nobody's best interest, a fact well understood by the Republicans trying to engineer rent regulation reform.

But the current law will expire at midnight Sunday unless Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) decides finally to accept a standing invitation from Pataki and state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) to negotiate a resolution of the impasse.

Fat chance.

Silver seems to think that the arithmetic of the issue -- 2.5 million tenants vs. 25,000 or so landlords -- makes it a certain winner at the polls for Democrats, particularly in next year's gubernatorial race and the contest for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Alfonse M. D'Amato.

We wonder.

There are, after all, nearly 16 million New York state residents who do not live in rent-regulated apartments -- and who have every right to be resentful of the fact that Silver & Co. have tied government in New York into knots over this issue.

The state is well into its third month without a budget; Albany stands to lose $300 million in federal aid because it has no welfare-reform plan in place -- plus tens of millions more in criminal justice aid that's at risk because the state hasn't adopted truth-in-sentencing legislation aimed at keeping violent felons out of circulation.

At the same time, Pataki's property-tax reform bill -- which includes substantial increases in education aid to New York City -- is languishing. And long-overdue energy rate-relief -- a critical component in any realistic economic-development strategy -- remains on a legislative back burner.


Political street theater, however, is alive and kicking.

Hardly a day goes by without one elected official or another attempting to scare the daylights out of New Yorkers who live in rent-regulated apartments.

Last week, for example, three Democratic district attorneys -- Robert Morgenthau of Manhattan, Charles Hynes of Brooklyn and Richard Brown of Queens -- held a press conference to express their fear that Pataki's compromise rent plan would spark a wave of tenant harassment by landlords.

These are normally tough guys. Would they decriminalize armed robbery in the face of an epidemic of stick-ups?

Of course not. If the landlords break the law, the DAs should prosecute them; it shouldn't be more complicated.

But, though Gov. Pataki's compromise rent plan includes tough new anti-harassment penalties, they're against it.


Two of the three make no secret of the fact that they have political aspirations beyond their present jobs.

Indeed, Silver himself is eyeing a run for governor.

Meanwhile, Public Advocate Mark Green -- who Sunday went before television cameras and (with state Senate Minority Leader Martin Connor, a Brooklyn Democrat, laughing uproariously in the background) publicly ripped the Pataki plan -- has targeted D'Amato in particular, and never misses an opportunity to link the incumbent senator to the rent issue.

And so on.

We're not naive. Grandstanding on controversial issues is what makes thepolitical world turn.

Still, every now and then it becomes necessary actually to do the right thing.

Every arm's-length study of New York City's rent system has concluded that 50 years of "emergency" controls have severely damaged the city housing market.


There has been virtually no non-luxury rental construction in decades, because potential landlords have no assurance that they'll be permitted to earn a reasonable return on their investment.

Only an estimated 6,000 units of new housing -- most of it on the luxury end of the price scale -- is added to the city's housing stock each year.

This contrasts poorly with housing expert Peter Salin's estimate that the city needs at least 20,000 -- and perhaps 40,000 -- new units each year to keep up with population growth and normal deterioration losses.

In addition, existing housing stock has been allowed substantially to decay. Another study has it that a phased lifting of regulations would stimulate some $4 billion in rehabilitation investment -- generating thousands of new jobs in the process. (Why the construction unions haven't been hectoring their supposed allies in the Democratic Party about this is, frankly, something of a puzzlement.)

In any event, the private sector's understandable reluctance to create new housing (what businessman invests in a business in which the return is tightly controlled?) has forced City Hall to take up some of the slack.

In recent years it has spent $4 billion (money that would have been better invested in roads, bridges and schools) on low-income housing. As a consequence, the city's credit rating has eroded dangerously -- and now it must go to Albany, hat in hand, for permission to borrow additional billions.

Bruno, who understands the adverse effect all this has on the city and state economies, wants to end rent regulation. He's willing to compromise, up to a point. Only, he says, absent an agreement the laws will expire Sunday.


Pataki's vacancy decontrol plan forms the most reasonable basis for compromise. The governor would retain rent regulation for virtually all current tenants; legislate particularly rigorous protection for the elderly and disabled and -- as noted -- get very tough on landlords who harass tenants. Only as people moved out or passed away could their apartments become deregulated.

Silver has no plan -- apart, of course, from attempting to secure political advantage from the issue.

That's why he and his cohorts have been hyping the "crisis" to the skies, while making a maximum effort to scare the elderly (who, under the Pataki plan, would keep their apartments).

But as things now stand, there may be be no rent laws whatsoever in effect Monday morning. If so, the blame accrues to Speaker Silver, and those of his Democratic allies who prefer to frighten grandmothers rather than deal responsibly with the city's housing crisis.