Rent control still isn't a good deal

by Dan Lynch
Albany Times Union, June 18, 1997
In this town, political disputes initially focus on who's right. All that counts in the end, though, is who's left.

By late Sunday, only Joe Bruno was left on the side opposing the extension of rent regulation in the city. George Pataki, up for re-election next year, had sunk 10 points in the polls. After months of bitter wrangling between Senate Majority Leader Bruno and Assembly Majority Leader Shelly Silver -- and with current controls due to expire at midnight -- the governor was ready to deal.

I'd predicted six weeks ago that Bruno could be left holding the bag. That seemed likely if Pataki and Al D'Amato, who's also up for re-election to the U.S. Senate next year, read some bad polls and decided to dance daintily down the hawsers.

D'Amato, the de facto leader of this state's Republican Party, has said repeatedly that he played no role whatsoever in this dispute. That's possible, I suppose.

It's also possible that, one of these days, O.J. Simpson will find the real killer.

Polls had Pataki suffering horribly. I also was told that he was polling daily on his own, which his staff firmly denies. If only they had that kind of money, I was told.

If they weren't -- and hadn't from the start of this vicious political clash -- then it's a shame. A little basic market research might have given them some clue as to how to properly sell their point of view.

From the beginning, the Republicans were pushing for a gradual end to the outmoded, socialistic, destructive system of rent regulation that has reduced development in the world's greatest city to Depression-era levels.

But they'd tried to argue logic. If the political history of this state has demonstrated anything, it's that logic doesn't fly.

Self-interest? Well, that's something else entirely.

The Democrats argued that ending rent control would expose middle-class tenants to greedy, unscrupulous landlords who would throw them out in the street and replace them with rich people. As a practical matter, vacancy decontrol would have resulted in nothing like that.

Tenants could stay in their apartments until they die. Tough enforcement of landlord-tenant laws would protect them against abusive tactics designed to drive them out of their homes.

The Republicans argued that rent regulation, imposed as an emergency measure at the end of World War II and extended every few years since by a vote-hungry Legislature, hurt the city's tax base by discouraging development. It cost suburbanites and upstaters in state aid to the city.

True, but if you're a New York City renter, who cares?

No, the best argument against rent regulation was the one never really made on the scale it deserved. That's this: Two out of three apartments in the city are not rent-regulated. Now, imagine that you live in a 12-unit apartment building in Manhattan. Imagine that four of those apartments are rent-regulated and that those tenants pay two-thirds of what you and the other eight tenants in non-regulated apartments pay.

If everybody paid market price, your rent ultimately would go down. That's the way the market works.

The Pataki people say that the deal they've worked out with Shelly Silver, which is too complex to go into here, will ultimately bring 75 percent of the rent-regulated units to market value in 10 years. Could be.

But they got three-quarters of a loaf, at best, when they could have had it all. If only they'd repeated this point, over and over:

Rent regulation isn't fair.

Dan Lynch can be reached at 454-5412.