Cardinal Defends Rent Regulations

New York Times, May 12, 1997
NEW YORK -- Calling "dignified affordable housing" a human right and a moral imperative, Cardinal John O'Connor urged state lawmakers Sunday to preserve the current rent regulation laws until a panel could examine changes that would not hurt the poor and middle class.

In a carefully worded sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the cardinal acknowledged that the current system of rent regulations might be less than perfect. But he questioned the wisdom of replacing them "with either no system or an untried system" when they expire next month, especially in the supercharged political climate that surrounds the issue.

And while he did not pretend to offer solutions of his own, he said a broadly representative commission -- of landlords, tenants, the poor and the middle class from various racial and ethnic backgrounds -- should be convened to make recommendations to the state Legislature.

"It seems to me that government has a grave moral responsibility to meet the human needs and to help make possible the living out of the human rights of all its people to the best of its ability," said the cardinal, who has often criticized cuts to welfare benefits and other social service programs.

"Who knows better what their needs really are or how well their human rights are given appropriate support than the people themselves?"

The comments by the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York come as the opposing sides in Albany appear no closer to meaningful discussion and as Gov. George Pataki begins to promote a compromise plan. Landlord groups and other opponents of rent regulations had feared that a strong statement by the cardinal in favor of the current system could weaken Senate Republicans, who have vowed to phase the laws out.

Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlord group, indicated through a spokesman that he was more exasperated than worried about the position the cardinal finally took.

'With all due respect to his eminence, the issue has been studied over and over, and every reputable study has concluded with the need to abolish rent regulations," said the spokesman, Stephen Mangione.

"There are responsible ways to phase out regulations, and that's what we should be doing now. Small-property owners especially, whose expenses already outpace their income, cannot wait for two more years of studies."

But Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, who met with the cardinal on Friday to make his case for keeping rent regulations, said he thought that the sermon was unequivocal enough that it would provide a boon for rent-regulation proponents.

"It's very clear that his position is that it would be immoral to allow these laws to expire," McKee said.

He added that tenant advocates would agree to take part in a process to examine the system and replace it as long as affordable housing was maintained.

"We believe rent regulation is the best and cheapest way to provide affordable housing," McKee said. "But we're very willing to sit down on a commission to look at other ways to do it."

The cardinal used much of his time in his homily to explain why he had decided to weigh in on what has become the most politically charged debate in the state this year.

Reading from a prepared text of six printed pages, he used quotations from three popes, a Yale political scientist, a noted Catholic economist and the catechism to underscore his assertion that decent housing was a fundamental right. As such, he said, it would be morally wrong if governments did not work to ensure it.

"Moral reasoning may not be helpfully separated from reality, particularly, in this case, economic and political reality," the cardinal said. The question, then, from the church's perspective, was "startlingly simple," he said: Does rent regulation encourage or discourage affordable housing?

O'Connor said that though he had pored over rent studies until late at night, he had come to no firm conclusions.

But in an indication that he tended to reject some of the arguments made by property owners, he criticized those who spoke of trade-offs, in which people should be willing to pay much more if they choose to live in certain parts of the city.

"That's morality and economics in a vacuum," he said. "What is to be traded off? Food, education, health care? These are human rights."

Throughout the sermon, he steered carefully away from commenting on the lawmakers involved in the issue, and did not even mention the state Legislature by name.

In the end, though, O'Connor seemed acutely aware of the political strategies animating the debate. Calling for the current system to be extended, he added:

"Smarter people than I will know how such delay could be provided without forcing legislators to be seeming to abandon positions which they believe integrity requires them to have taken."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company