A Generational Rent Gap

New York Times, June 13, 1997
Joseph Bruno, the majority leader of the New York State Senate, has removed one barrier to settling the dispute over rent control that has paralyzed state government this year. Mr. Bruno dropped his fight to eliminate a section of the rent regulations that protects domestic partners of leaseholding tenants in the same way as spouses.

It is doubtful that Mr. Bruno was being utterly candid when he claimed his mind had been changed when fellow Republicans "who represent a lot of these people" revealed the news that gay couples and other longstanding domestic partners "consider themselves families." The majority leader has helped block other legislation, such as a bias-crimes bill, over the gay rights issue.

The domestic partnership item is part of a much greater battle over tenant succession that highlights some of the most irrational aspects of the rent laws. Under the present combination of statutes, court decisions and regulations, leases can be passed down from father to daughter to cousin to friend in perpetuity, as if a rented apartment were a family heirloom. A tenant who has occupied a rent-regulated apartment for 40 years can invite a niece to live with her, then move to Florida a few years later, leaving the niece the "heir" to the lease. The new tenant would enjoy the same low rent as her aunt, as well as the right to invite her own son to move in at some future date and take up his own right of succession.

It makes perfect sense that spouses, domestic partners, siblings or anyone else who has co-inhabited an apartment for a long time should not be evicted because a loved one dies. It also seems reasonable that senior citizens and the disabled who lived with the primary tenant should get special protection, as is afforded under the present law.

But the idea that the leases of very-long-term tenants, which tend to be the cheapest in the rent-regulated system, can be passed on indefinitely through a family is ridiculous. Senator Bruno has a good idea when he suggests that the right of succession should be limited to one generation. The niece in the example above could keep the apartment, but her son, upon moving in, would be notified that his rights to the lease will expire when his mother leaves.

This page has supported Gov. George Pataki's call for a gradual end to the entire rent regulation system by allowing units to return to market rates when the present tenants leave. The problem with the present laws goes far beyond the basic issue of price controls. As rent regulation has evolved over decades, it has mutated into an entitlement for individual renters that is a bureaucratic nightmare for small landlords and does nothing to help create a supply of affordable housing.

As tenants' rights to maintain their protected leases expanded, the laws became more difficult to enforce. Paperwork proliferated. Arbitration of disputes grew slower and slower. Small landlords, who are often immigrants with little experience in New York housing law, have wound up in court over rent increases that occurred before they bought the building.

Now that Mr. Bruno has made his concession, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should show his good will by agreeing to limit the rights of succession to a single generation. Having carved out that tiny bit of rationality, the two leaders and Governor Pataki should then work quickly toward a compromise that will get as many units as possible out from under the rent regulation bureaucracy when their present tenants move out.