Rent Control, A Divine Right. Right?

by Terry Golway
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.