Decontrolling the Tenant

by David Lindsay
NY Press, May 7, 1997

now. As New York dwellings go, it's neither a palace nor a
pigeonhole. My rent's crept up with the passage of time (it's now
$1124 a month, which I split with my wife), because by law my
landlady is entitled to a raise now and then, while I as a writer
am not.

Compared to some people, of course, I have no cause to complain.
I don't have to turn tricks on the West Side -- or write press
releases in midtown -- just to make ends meet. But if I have no
desire to leave my apartment, it's not exactly because I'm
gloating over the deal of a lifetime. My perspective is much less
cynical than that. Over the years, I come to think of New York as
my city -- my home. In point of fact, I've come to think of my
home as my home.

The territorial instinct is just as strong in me as it is in
anywhere else in nature. Having staked a claim on my square inch
of the earth, then, you can imagine how I feel when people start
calling for an end to rent regulations. If on June 15, their
campaign succeeds, the amount I pay out may skyrocket or it may
not. Either way, a shot of adrenaline rushes up through my gut --
and then stays there, as if a lunatic had appeared on TV,
wielding a knife and calling me by name.

Obviously, this kind of sensation doesn't lend itself to rational
discourse, and there are times when I have an overwhelming
impulse to do something rash. I can't say what stops me unless
it's my training; as a writer, the last thing I look forward to
is the moment when words no longer suffice. So here I am and here
I suppose I will be, even if everyone else decides that the fate
of New York should hinge on the sudden, almost mob-like desire to
punish Mia Farrow.

Because as far as I can tell, that's what we're talking about
here. Certainly, the argument that a handful of pieds-a-terre
have driven up rents citywide has no basis in reason. Out of the
two million-odd residential units in New York City, only 70,000
fall under rent control, or about four percent of the total
market. Subtract the poor and elderly from this population (since
no one seems quite callous enough to recommend their eviction)
and you're talking about what? Two percent of the residential
units in Manhattan? Who in their right mind could possibly claim
that rents are kept artificially high because of this minuscule

Those who concede this point will usually fall back to defense
number two—that decontrol will affect rent-controlled apartments,
while leaving rent-stabilized apartments relatively unscathed.
But one need only look at existing commercial leases to see that
this isn't the case.

Commercial leases are subject to virtually no controls at all;
nor do they overlap with residential units to any significant
degree. (There is some cheating, of course, but this only adds to
the pool of tenants whose rents are already decontrolled.) So do
business owners go unscathed in this unregulated market? Hardly.
I challenge anyone to show me an example where the rent on a
commercial space in Manhattan has gone down. More often, the rent
goes up overnight and the tenant is sent packing. Then someone
new arrives in a hilarious flurry of capital to open a restaurant
that will almost certainly close in two years.

Of course, landlords will sometimes refrain from raising
commercial rents for the sake of continuity among their
properties. But it's one thing for individual caprice to rule
your business and another thing for it to govern your home.
Essentially, rent decontrol will put the lord back in landlord,
leaving tenants to hope against hope that their master is not a
cruel one.

Viewed this way, it is exceedingly strange to hear the argument
for decontrol coming from the mouths of would-be Manhattan
tenants. That newcomers would actually ask to pay higher rents,
that they would claim the right to do so simply because others
have lived in Manhattan for too damn long -- I can only conclude
that such wondrous jeremiads are evidence of that favorite
American pastime known as amnesia.

Do your research and you will see that the largest rent increases
in the last 50 years had nothing to do with rent regulations. I
recently unearthed a 1975 issue of the East Village Eye that
advertised a two-bedroom apartment for a $200 a month. In 1981, I
moved into a loft on Broadway just below Canal and paid $150 a
month for a room. Four years later, such windfalls were a thing
of the past. My monthly portion of the rent for a ground-floor
apartment on E. 6th St. had mushroomed to $400, and I considered
this a steal, despite the fact that I once came across a dead
body in the courtyard.

The reason for this change in property values was simple. During
the 80s, real-estate speculators discovered that they could make
a killing by trading condos, and forthwith began to do so at a
ferocious rate. This in turn raised the level of what the market
would bear, thus sending all rents skyward. It was quite a thing
to see, really. As rent-stabilized apartments opened up, the
landlords rushed in and painted over the light switches, then
tripled the rent on the strength of these "capital improvements."

The real-estate boom was a much storied affair at the time.
(Indeed, it was copied nationwide, to the extent that San
Franciscans began to speak of the "Manhattanization" of their
city.) Yet for reasons that escape me entirely, today's decontrol
advocates are patently unwilling to take its progenitors to task.
Can't find an apartment in Manhattan? Don't point the finger at
the people who forced the rents up in the first place. And don't
even think about blaming the landlords who are currently
warehousing properties throughout the city. I mean why buck the
terrorist when you can trash your fellow hostages?

Strange currents indeed. Still, I could forgive all this if the
free-market contingent would only subject the notion of freedom
to some real revisionism. What, after all, is so precious about
the regulation of rent payments? You're a person. Your landlord
is a person. Why not pay your rent according to what the market
will bear -- that is, when you deem it necessary, in the amounts
you deem necessary?

The reasoning of the libertarians could be put to good use here.
Landlords, for example, might fear that tenants would stop paying
them, but in practice it wouldn't work like this, because
apartments do ultimately require care and feeding, and the best
wildcat thinking says that tenants would automatically act in
their own best interests. Who knows? They might even arrange
incentives that keep desirable landlords on the site and drive
unreliable ones away.

Am I crazy? I don't think so. Tenancy is an arrangement that
presumes a level playing ground for both sides and these days, a
certain cadre of landlords is playing about as rough as rough can
be. Personally, my landlady and I have a fairly good
relationship, so for all intents and purposes, I'm confining my
outlandishness to the realm of language. But there's no mistaking
the severity of what is being proposed.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people around who don't have the
power of the word to mollify them, and in ruminating on their
fortunes, Sen. Joe Bruno and company would do well to keep a
moment from Casablanca in mind. Major Strasser is relishing the
day when the Germans march on New York City. To which Sam
replies: "There are some parts of Brooklyn, Major, that I would
advise you not to invade."