Rent-control war leaves a city bleeding

Albany Electric Times Union, April 22, 1997 (First published)

They were called jibaros. They were farm people no longer able to coax food from the Puerto Rican mud.

They streamed into New York City, as had the rural Irish and Italians and blacks before them. They hoped to trade futility and feudalism for pavement and prosperity.

Factory work had been there for the others. But when the jibaros arrived, those factories were moving south and west.

Without jobs, they settled into rent-controlled walk-ups in the South Bronx. The Jews and Italians and Irish saw these people as dangerously different -- as they themselves had once been viewed. So they fled to Queens or Jersey. Or they migrated north, through Pelham and the Grand Concourse, to the shelter of Westchester.

As the jibaros fell unwillingly into the grasp of welfare -- and as the only people capable of sustaining rent decontrol put down skid marks leaving the Bronx -- rent control tightened its grip.

It had been instituted after World War II to protect returning servicemen searching for jobs and starting up families from landlord profiteering. Always, rent control was meant to be temporary. But, always, a compliant Legislature extended it.

Just a few more years. Only a few, the lawmakers said.

Now, with the working class fleeing the Bronx to be replaced by welfare recipients, well, this was certainly no time to lift rent controls. Then came heroin, the cruel curse of urban dwellers with too much time on their hands.

So, the Bronx landlords, seeing maintenance costs rise and stuck with the same artificially low rents, resorted to new, more desperate measures. They hired professionals with gasoline cans to build empty lots. Abandonment grew popular. Let the city government have the damned buildings.

And soon, the well-intended architects of rent control saw the South Bronx deteriorate into charred rubble, with broken windows staring darkly like eyeless sockets at the rest of this state.

This year's fight over rent control in the Legislature is the most vicious political battle in memory in this town. In all, 1.1 million units home to 2.7 million New Yorkers fall under the program. Another 2 million units don't.

The Democrats offer images of working-class New Yorkers being hit with huge rent increases and fleeing for the suburbs. The Republicans offer Mia Farrow, living in a palace on Central Park West at one-fifth the market rental.

Both are correct, but the story of rent control is best illustrated by the Bronx. There, compassion coupled with poverty and smack conspired to kill much of a borough of a million human beings in less than a decade.

Shelly Silver, the speaker of the Democratic Assembly, has passed a bill to extend rent control indefinitely. Joe Bruno, the leader of the Republican-controlled state Senate, wants to decontrol rents over time. His argument is that rent-controlled apartments are subsidized by market-price rentals in the same building.

George Pataki has remained silent. Without Senate action, rent control expires June 15. That, as our lawmakers put it, is when rent control goes over the cliff.

Sometime in the future, and it may be well after June 15, some tortured accommodation will be reached on rent control -- some complex mechanism to phase it out. That will come after each party has managed to inflict maximum political damage on the other.

Ultimately, though, there's a right here and a wrong, too. For purely political reasons, the Legislature has for decades now perpetuated a bad system.

And, in the process, managed to destroy much of the world's greatest city.