For Youth, Bargain Rent Is Just a Ticket

New York Times, May 13, 1997

NEW YORK -- It seems only right, given the political climate, that one of Broadway's hottest tickets is a high-wattage musical that dwells on tenant-landlord relations. "Rent" remains so popular that people, generally those too young to clearly remember any President before Ronald Reagan, start lining up the night before for the 30-odd tickets available for each performance at the rock-bottom price of $20 apiece.

Waiting for Sunday's matinee, some of them since 11 p.m. on Saturday, they looked like an encampment of the homeless, wrapping themselves in plastic sheets and huddling inside cardboard boxes against a chilling wind. "Now you know what it feels like to be on the street," a truly homeless man grumbled as he walked past them, outside the Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street.

These 20-somethings were for the most part newcomers to New York, proof that the city is still a beacon not just to struggling families from Rawalpindi and Santo Domingo but also to wide-eyed, hopeful youngsters from places like Grinnell, Iowa, and Upper Bluff, Mo. The city has always depended on their likes for infusions of creative energy.

They are not at the heart of the simultaneous monologues masquerading these days as political debate over rent controls. But their personal futures -- and with them, perhaps, New York's future vibrancy -- are as much on the line as the fate of the elderly couples and working-class families normally invoked in this argument.

Not surprisingly, the people waiting for "Rent" worry about paying the rent, should decades-old regulations disappear just as they set out to make it in New York City.

"I'm leery, because there are bad people out there who would charge whatever they want," said Rusty Van Praag, the emigre from Upper Bluff, who studies at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy on the Upper West Side and is on the prowl for an affordable apartment. Lying on the pavement under a blanket, a young woman expressed a similar concern. "A lot of people come to the city in a not very stable financial condition," she said. "Rent controls give them a way to get started."

On the other hand, Van Praag had little sympathy for the rentocrats paying peanuts for sprawling apartments. Ditto for those who regard rent control, originally imposed 50 years ago as an emergency measure, as an entitlement to be taken to the grave or even beyond, if they have children to inherit their apartments.

(Gov. George E. Pataki, in endorsing "vacancy decontrol" Monday while managing to avoid even once uttering those two words, recommended that the concept of family "succession" continue. One can already envision thousands of young people paying off rent-controlled old-timers to adopt them, much the way many immigrants have rushed to marry American citizens to stay in the country.)

"There definitely are people out there who should be paying more for the space they have," Van Praag said.

Jodi Conn, who left Iowa to become an assistant fashion designer in Manhattan, lucked into a rent-stabilized studio apartment on West 72nd Street. She pays $567 a month, which is good these days.

She feared the worst when the rent monologues began, Ms. Conn said, but now she is not so sure. "At first, it sounded like they were going to make great changes," she said. "Now, it doesn't sound so bad."

For sure, neither she nor the others were steeped in the Borghesian ways of New York politics, guided by the imperative to do unto others before they do one to you. But they felt they had been around long enough to know an extreme position when they heard one.

They had difficulty accepting the apocalyptic visions of the tenant-group professionals who predict an end to civilization as we know it should rent regulations disappear. By the same token, they did not accept sweetness-and-light forecasts from State Senator Joseph L. Bruno and his allies, who see a deregulated paradise of new construction and overall lower rents.

Most of all, though relatively new to New York political wars, they were no less perplexed than older hands as to why decisions of such moment are made in Albany, by upstaters who, in some cases, do not even like the city. New Yorkers should decide their own fate, they said, a point made the same day by Manhattan Borough President Ruth W. Messinger, a Democratic candidate for mayor.

"This is the only city I know of that can get away with charging so much for tiny studios," Ms. Conn said. "People who live upstate probably have no idea how high rents already are here."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company