Rent Contortions

New York Times, May 5, 1997

The showdown over rent regulations is coming and most of the chips are on the side of the table controlled by the landlords and the Republicans. Their strategy has been to characterize the beneficiaries of rent control and rent stabilization as a group that consists largely of men and women of means who are abusing the system by clinging to apartments worth far more than they are paying. In other words, pity the poor landlord.

Joseph Bruno, with the finesse of a wild man turned loose at the church picnic, has led the G.O.P. attack on rent regulations. According to Mr. Bruno, the majority leader of the State Senate, an "atom bomb would have created less of a problem" for the New York City real estate market than the rent laws.

In Mr. Bruno's considered view, rent regulations should be abolished as quickly as possible. If you can't afford the increased rent, get out. And take your family with you.

Clever, these Republicans. Mr. Bruno's carefully crafted excesses are designed to frighten opponents into accepting vacancy decontrol, under which rent regulations would be abolished for individual apartments as tenants move, die or are evicted. When compared with the catastrophe that would accompany elimination of all rent protection, vacancy decontrol can seem prudent, eminently reasonable, even merciful. (Sound like your landlord?)

With Senator Bruno on the warpath, vacancy decontrol is being touted as a compromise by the party's so-called moderates. In fact, landlords go to sleep every night dreaming about the bonanza such a "compromise" would bring.

We don't have to imagine what would happen under vacancy decontrol. We know. It was tried in the early 1970's, and for tenants it was a disaster. It was argued that vacancy decontrol would ease the housing crisis by providing developers and landlords with the money and incentives to create new housing, improve existing units and reverse the growing problem of property abandonment. A building boom was forecast.

Full vacancy decontrol became law in 1971. Within three years rent protections were removed from more than 400,000 New York City apartments. Here's what happened. Rents went through the roof. (Surprise.) The average increase was 52 percent. With so much money to be had, some landlords found themselves incapable of waiting for their tenants to move or die. They started forcing them out. An epidemic of evictions erupted. Thousands of tenants were harassed, some hideously.

The building boom never occurred. There was no increase in new housing construction. The amount spent on renovations decreased by 30 percent. And the increase in the abandonment of property continued unchecked.

"It disproved the argument that money would be reinvested in capital improvements," said State Senator Franz Leichter, a Democrat who served on a state commission that in late 1973 and early 1974 monitored the results of vacancy decontrol.

Even Republicans were dismayed. In the spring of 1974, with a Republican in the Governor's mansion (Malcolm Wilson) and with G.O.P. majorities in both houses of the Legislature, vacancy decontrol was repealed.

As for the suggestion, endlessly and obnoxiously repeated, that somehow rich New Yorkers are the primary beneficiaries of the rent laws, forget about it. According to the 1996 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, the median annual income of the city's approximately one million rent-stabilized households in 1995 was $21,600. For the 71,000 rent-controlled households it was $12,408.

In the current showdown, the Republicans (and thus the landlords) hold the trump card. The rent laws will expire if no action is taken by June 15. To reach an agreement on an extension, the Democrats will have to accept some further erosion of rent protections.

But for the long term, Senator Martin Connor, the minority leader, has proposed what is probably the best approach to the search for an equitable solution. He believes a commission should be set up to bring the discussions out from behind closed doors. All sides should be listened to, public hearings held, and good-faith recommendations made for revising a system that has such a profound impact on the daily lives of so many New Yorkers.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times