NYC Residents Firmly Back Rent Regulations, Poll Finds

New York Times, June 11, 1997
NEW YORK -- With the tenacity of a New Yorker refusing to surrender a hard-won parking spot, city residents by an overwhelming margin support regulations that keep rents below what the market will bear, and therefore do not want state rent ceilings to expire Sunday, according to the latest New York Times poll.

In margins of at least 70 percent, those polled by the Times -- including homeowners and tenants -- said rent regulations were necessary to provide affordable housing and to prevent rents from soaring.

That does not necessarily mean, however, that the public is unwilling to consider substantial changes in the laws. Opinions were closely divided, in fact, when residents were asked about some of the proposals being debated in Albany for replacing the current laws.

For instance, nearly half voiced support for lifting the ceilings when apartments become vacant, a proposal, known as vacancy decontrol, recently made by Gov. George Pataki.

Nonetheless, virtually every cross section of the city -- homeowners, tenants, Republicans, Democrats -- clings to the concept of rent protections as if they were some kind of natural law in the city.

Nearly 80 percent, an extraordinary majority for any question in New York City, said they do not want the laws to expire, as the state's top political opponent of rent regulations predicted Tuesday would happen Sunday.

Despite the support that seems to exist for the governor's vacancy decontrol plan, he appears to be bearing the brunt of the public anger over the rent debate. According to the poll, Pataki's approval rating has plummeted 10 percentage points in just three months, to 31 percent, an enormous drop for someone whose popularity in the city had been growing.

Although there could be other reasons for the change, there have been no other issues in the last three months that would seem to explain it.

Asked which politician or group of people they will hold most responsible if the rent laws expire, 31 percent of those polled cited Pataki, the largest number for any public official. Only 10 percent cited state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, who began the current turmoil with his call for the end of rent regulation, and 9 percent named Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who supports the rent laws.

And while U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato has shown he can exercise great political influence in Albany, he was blamed by only 1 percent of those polled.

An unrelated statewide poll, released Tuesday by John Zogby, a Utica pollster, found that Pataki's job approval rating had declined only three percentage points since March, a statistically insignificant shift, indicating that the rent issue has far less impact upstate.

The Times telephone poll, conducted between June 5 and 8, surveyed 913 adult New York City residents on their attitudes on rent laws, achieving a mix of homeowners and renters in rough proportion to their numbers in the city. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The poll's findings demonstrate many of the inconsistencies that can arise in public opinion on a complex, politically charged issue.

For instance, residents were evenly split on the vacancy decontrol plan, which would lift rent ceilings when a tenant moved out or died, effectively phasing out controls over a long period of time. At the same time, two-thirds of the people polled said that "a lot" of landlords would unscrupulously try to pressure tenants to move out if vacancy control is approved -- the usual argument against the idea.

Democrats and tenant advocates, in other words, may have succeeded in their political efforts to focus public discontent on the governor and on landlords, but they seem to have been less convincing in branding vacancy decontrol the equivalent to an end to all rent protections.

Zenia Mucha, the governor's communications director, said Pataki's drop in the poll was the result of a "multimillion-dollar campaign to terrorize tenants" waged by tenant advocates and Democrats for political purposes. That 69 percent of city residents do not blame the governor, she said, shows that the majority of the city supports his plan.

But one theme remains quite clear throughout: the virtual citywide consensus on rent protections shows how thoroughly the laws have been woven into the city's fabric. Like the subways or the water system, rent controls for many people seem a fundamental entitlement of city life.

In follow-up interviews, many of the residents polled in the survey said they could not imagine life in the city remaining the same without the laws.

"The reason we have all this diversity in the city, with all the different ethnic groups and different kinds of people, is that people can still afford to live here, and I think this would be lost if we didn't have rent controls," said John Rasile, an architect who owns the Ozone Park, Queens, home he grew up in. "Otherwise, we're just going to have wealthy people living here, because it's just going to be so expensive."

For decades, the elected officials in the city who set the terms of local debate have been unvarying in their support for rent protections, no matter their political stripe, and the poll showed that such support among residents continues to cross all the usual partisan and ideological lines. More than 80 percent of Democrats want to keep the laws, as do 71 percent of Republicans. Even two-thirds of homeowners, who would not be affected by rent protections unless their property values should rise with decontrol, still say they support the laws.

The unanimity apparently stems from a collective understanding within the city of how difficult it is to find adequate, affordable housing in New York City. Many homeowners used to be renters, and nearly everyone knows or carries with them the scars from a desperate apartment search, an endless battle in Housing Court, or the sticker shock when first pricing real estate.

In the poll, 77 percent said the end of rent regulations would mean the city would become too expensive for people like themselves, and 69 percent said many people would be forced from their apartments.

"Being a former renter I know how hard it is and how expensive it is," said Maureen Thomas, an accountant who owns a co-op in Manhattan. "It's a lack of space. There aren't enough apartments for everyone. Even though I know it's to my advantage if we didn't have rent control, I just don't think you should have the rents skyrocket."

Advocates of decontrol, of course, assert that it is precisely because the city does not have a free market in rents that it has experienced such a severe shortage of affordable housing. But that argument is apparently not persuasive to many city residents, who say they prefer a more comforting government restriction to an economic theory.

Ms. Thomas said that landlords were making enough money already and that she did not believe that they would build new housing if rents were allowed to rise. Others in the survey said they agreed.

"People are a little tired of the whole greed factor," said Brian Bilcher, a firefighter who rents an uncontrolled apartment in Staten Island. "You see it every place, from sports and movies to being a landlord. I don't think it's right that some people are living in great apartments in the Village for just $200 a month, but there's a lot of people who make half of what I make or less and they need access to a living place, too. To me, it's a moral issue."

How the Poll Was Done

The latest New York Times Poll is based on telephone interviews with 913 adults conducted from June 5 to June 8 in all parts of New York City. Interviews were conducted in either English or Spanish.

The sample of telephone exchanges called was selected by a computer from a complete list of city exchanges. The exchanges were chosen to assure that each area in the city was represented in proportion to its population. For each exchange, the telephone numbers were formed by random digits, thus permitting access to both listed and unlisted numbers. Within each household, one adult was designated by a random procedure to be the respondent for the survey.

The results have been weighted to take account of household size and number of telephone lines into a residence and to adjust for variations in the sample relating to borough, race, sex, age and education.

In theory, in 19 cases out of 20 the results based on such samples will differ by no more than three percentage points in either direction from what would have been obtained by seeking out all adult New Yorkers.

For smaller subgroups, the potential sampling error is larger. For example, it is plus or minus five percentage points for those living in rent-regulated apartments, eight points for those living in unregulated apartments, and six points for those who own their home.

In addition to sampling error, the practical difficulties of conducting any survey of public opinion may introduce other sources of error into the poll. Differences in the wording and order of questions, for instance, can lead to somewhat varying results.