No Rent Regulation, No Middle Class

New York Times, April 16, 1997

As a lawyer who has long represented tenants, I am alarmed at efforts to jettison New York City's rent laws. The leader of this effort, Joseph Bruno, the State Senate majority leader, claims that the poor, elderly and disabled would be protected. But middle- and low-income tenants also need protection.

Without rent regulation, most of my clients would have been evicted long ago. Not only would tenants' rents go up; they would lose other protections as well.

Take Mary Teresa, a restaurant hostess and single mother. She was struggling to pay $900 a month for her rent-stabilized apartment in Hell's Kitchen. We found out that the previous tenant had paid only $404. To justify that big a jump in rent under current law, the landlord would have had to spend about $22,500 on improvements. But Mary Teresa got verification that the apartment had not undergone such extensive work. Ultimately, her rent was cut to $700.

Two brothers, Alfred, 51, and Andrew, 40, both maintenance workers, have lived in a rent-controlled apartment on East 26th Street in Manhattan since 1968. In 1995, their landlord claimed he needed their apartment -- which had one of the lowest rents in the building, $191 a month -- for a superintendent's residence. But the law doesn't allow evictions from regulated apartments in order to install supers. Eventually, the landlord gave up trying to evict the brothers.

Then there is Anthony, an actor, who pays $401 a month for his rent-stabilized Chelsea apartment.

When the building went co-op in the late 80's, Anthony, like most of the other residents, didn't buy his apartment. A man named Charles did, as an investment. He defaulted on his mortgage and the bank foreclosed, naming him on its eviction notice. But Anthony, not Charles, lived in the apartment. The rent laws kept him from being evicted.

Plenty of my middle- and low-income clients have endured intolerable conditions, including no heat or water. Deregulation would make many tenants think twice about demanding repairs.

Rent laws cover roughly 2.5 million people in New York City, 35 percent of the population. Relatively few tenants earn enough to withstand big rent increases.

Deregulation would really hurt those who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Roughly two-thirds of the tenants of rent-regulated apartments earn less than $30,000 a year.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has hinted that a compromise in Albany is possible, perhaps involving state financing for new housing.

But affordable housing isn't profitable to build. Even if the state offers incentives, it's unlikely that enough new housing would be built quickly enough to accommodate those displaced because of higher rents. And why should people have to move from neighborhoods where they have lived for years?

Some say that rent regulation makes it hard for small landlords to keep up their buildings. But 77 percent of all units are owned by less than 12 percent of the city's landlords.

Allowing landlords to charge market rents for regulated apartments that become vacant -- one widely discussed idea -- would likely reduce the number of affordable places to live, especially in Manhattan. Vacancy decontrol, tried in 1971, was a failure. Rents went up, tenants were evicted, and the measure did not stimulate new construction.

If rents are deregulated, many of those who give the city its marvelous diversity would have to move.

Is that what we really want?

Colleen F. McGuire is a housing lawyer.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company