Poor Landlords

New York Times, June 13, 1997
The city's landlords are not making enough money. They want longer limousines and larger portions of caviar. They want bigger spreads in the Hamptons. They want their millions converted into tens of millions, their tens of millions into hundreds of millions, and so on. In short, they want everybody's rents raised.

If this means a certain number of fundamentally decent, hard-working (but budget-conscious) New Yorkers will have to pack up and leave the city, well, that's life. Here's a map to the tunnel.

The theorists will tell you it's a matter of principle. The great gods of the free market have declared that $1,000 a month for a studio the size of a shower stall is insufficient. A mere two grand for a one-bedroom the size of a Volkswagen will never do. In the free market, the sky must be the limit.

It is also a matter of politics. The landlords paid their money to the Republicans and now they want to collect. The rent regulations must go.

But why so fast? If the theorists are on such solid ground, what is the problem with a thorough public discussion of the issue, including formal hearings? The rent regulations affect millions of New Yorkers. Why should a handful of landlords and an even smaller handful of politicians cause a rush to judgment on such an important matter?

The city's district attorneys, of all people, have been speaking effectively for those New Yorkers who have been denied the great pleasure of hanging out with the landlords and the theorists, and thus are stuck in the rough-and-tumble of the real world. The high cost of living in the city and the extreme shortage of affordable housing already have the middle class in a vise, said Charles Hynes, District Attorney of Kings County. He noted that sharply higher rents inevitably will drive many away. "And believe me," he said, "the city's character and quality of life will change if those families can no longer live here."

Mr. Hynes said the game of chicken that is being played by Gov. George Pataki and the state's top legislators is frightening people unnecessarily. "Just stop the clock," he said, noting that there is nothing magical about Sunday's midnight deadline. "Stop the clock for however long it takes to work out a solution that is just and fair."

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau of Manhattan joined with Mr. Hynes and District Attorney Richard Brown of Queens to remind New Yorkers of the horrors some tenants were subjected to in prior periods of decontrol or gentrification. A report originally released by Mr. Morgenthau in the mid-80's said: "Over the course of nearly three years, the Special Housing Unit has uncovered many crimes committed by corrupt landlords, managing agents and superintendents who, motivated by the enormous profits involved in real estate development and speculation, used criminal tactics to reap huge financial windfalls."

In many cases, legitimate tenants were driven from their apartments by gangsters and other low-lifes brought in by unscrupulous landlords. The tactic was incredibly effective. Some buildings were emptied in a matter of months.

Mr. Morgenthau prosecuted an organized ring of tenant terrorists known as the Lender-Lambert gang who hired themselves out to landlords from 1978 to 1984. "With the landlords' connivance," said Mr. Morgenthau's report, "Lender and Lambert installed drug addicts, prostitutes, thieves and other criminals in vacant apartments to commit burglaries and assaults against tenants, and to cause floods, set fires, strew garbage and otherwise terrorize the tenants."

Vacancy decontrol will provide a tremendous new inducement for landlords to empty out their buildings. Governor Pataki insists that any rollback of rent regulations will be accompanied by tough new sanctions against villainous landlords, but the district attorneys are skeptical. Prosecuting serious criminality by landlords is much more easily said than done. And lesser offenses -- like failing to make repairs or provide heat and hot water -- are almost impossible to police effectively.

New York is facing a historic change. Time is needed to consider the myriad consequences -- intended and otherwise -- of this upheaval that has landlords across the city salivating.