by Terry Golway
Rent Control, A Divine Right. Right?
Opinion, NY Observer, May 5, 1997
It is true, of course, that rent regulations help to distinguish New York from those run-of-the-mill cities out yonder in mainland America. In those other places, after all, dinner party conversations tend to move from one dreary topic to another -- one minute it's the 2-for 1 spring suit sale at Sears, the next minute it's the suspiciously high scores at one of the local bowling alleys. In Manhattan, rent regulations allow the best and brightest to gather round exquisite tables, pop the corks on interesting wines, and exchange exciting and mysterious tales from the nether world known as the real estate market. Even after the co-op and condominium craze of the last two decades, it's rent that gets the city talking. The Byzantine system of rent regulation is a source of local pride. Complex arguments intended to result in possession of a rent- stabilized apartment fill the pages of the New York Law Journal, as long-loss relatives, often from points far and wide, try to get in on the action. Mastery of these regulations, and victories over the hated forces of the market and landlordism, ratify a Manhattanite's place in the world. It speaks of hidden connections to power and influence, and hints broadly of an ever-so-chic disdain for the market and its corruptions. A pro-regulation group has adopted, with wonderful righteousness, the following motto: "Housing for People, Not for Profit." The New York Post noted that group's political action director lives in a $745-per-month apartment on West 93rd Street—that is, when he and his girlfriend are not relaxing in their country home in the Berkshires. No wonder, then, that those who hate rent regulation really hate it. The government-sanctioned corruption is legendary, preserved in a thousand anecdotes. The $800-a-month renter on Staten Island and the $ 1,200-a month renter in Bay Ridge understand that Mr. Housing for People, Not for Profit has a glorious, in your-face-you capitalist-swine deal, while they are left to fend for themselves in that big world known as the free marketplace. And Mr. Housing for People, Not for Profit has become Exhibit A to Z in what promises to be the conclusive battle over rent regulation. Few people really believe that all rent regulations will expire in June, which is what State Senator Joseph Bruno, the majority leader of the State Senate, has promised. Perhaps rent regulation as we know it will end, but the raging winds of the unfettered market are likely to bump up against a protective wall known as political reality. Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato are due for re- election next year. They are free-marketers of a sort, but they are not ones for letting think-tank ideology get in the way of old-fashioned vote-gathering. That's why there's a gigantic new public agency supplying electricity to the homes of politically potent Long Islanders. It hardly requires the mind of Oliver Stone to suggest that Mr. D'Amato and Mr. Pataki are waiting behind the scenes. Prepared to intervene not on one side or the other, but as blue-helmeted peacekeepers. They will enforce a truce, probably in the form of vacancy decontrol or a long phase-out of most regulations. Rent regulation is the last, dying gasp of a certain sort of New York liberalism. The landlords have found their enemies, and they are you—if you happen to be among those with six- figure incomes and three-figure rents, or if you snatched your rent-controlled apartment through reconfigured blood lines. No doubt some of you would argue that, after all, you have a right to live in an apartment with sweeping views of the Hudson River. Continue to do so, and Mr. Bruno will put a picture of you on a poster and wave it on the floor of the State Senate, where men in plaid sports coats and women with blue eye shadow will cast their votes against you. In the great rent wars, the affluent are affected only insofar as it may be a bit more burdensome to carry the cost of the country home, private school, the parking garage and ski weekends in Colorado. For those in the middle—from the proverbial struggling artist to the first-year associate in a middling law firm to the high school math teacher -- the end of regulation poses far more serious dilemmas. Pro-regulators say such people will be priced out of Manhattan. Some academics say that rents in the middle may actually come down a bit when high-renters are no longer subsidizing low- renters. Rent regulation is about the plight of these people. The greedy affluent who have become walking arguments against regulation (and who generally are the most righteous about it) have made the program ripe for the free market's picking. When the peacekeepers eventually break up this battle, there surely will be casualties to cart off. Anybody who demands to be taken away in a private ambulance, however, probably doesn't need our sympathy.