Look for a deal on tax cap and rent control

n upstate New York, it’s all about confiscatory, punishing taxes. In New York City, however, it’s all about how much rent one pays for an apartment. I doubt most people north of Yonkers really get it. People in New York are actually retiring, perhaps earlier than they had planned, because of some really onerous rules the landlord lobby has pushed through. Their apartments’ rents can be “decontrolled” when they reach a certain income level.

“So what?” you say. “A landlord should be able to charge whatever he or she wants for their property.”

“Let the market handle it,” says the landlord propaganda.

The problem, of course, is that New York is becoming a gated community where only the wealthy can live. Nowhere is this truer than on Manhattan, the island that once was bought for 24 dollars. People are paying incredible amounts of money to compete against one another for every square inch of apartment stock. When I grew up in Manhattan, we enjoyed a mixture of races, classes and religions. There were plenty of poor people who lived in brownstones. Boy, has that ever changed. These very houses, which were once symbolic of having not, are now the places of the wealthy, costing millions of dollars. When I was a kid, everything between the main cross-town thoroughfares was regarded as an unsafe and a dubious place to live. Now, virtually every street is a symbol of wealth.

Yes, yes, it’s all very interesting that the Legislature has a late budget or that Governor Cuomo is pursuing an ethics bill. Those things really are important, but nowhere as significant or salient to New Yorkers as whether they will lose the apartments they have barely been able to afford for their whole lives. Year after year, the landlord lobby in Albany has made it more and more difficult to maintain what was once called “rent control” and then “rent stabilization” of apartments.

While (for good reason) upstaters call for tax caps on how much they will pay in real estate taxes, one can’t imagine the passion and fear engendered by the thought of losing one’s longtime domicile. We are talking about the uprooting of families. Unless you understand New York, it’s hard to comprehend that no matter how high the rents go, there will always be buyers. Small, two-bedroom apartments in prewar buildings sell for well over a million dollars. Just think of what a million dollars will buy you in most of America.

So, every year, it is high noon as the landlord lobby, run by some of the most powerful men in the world and represented ably by the legendary lobbyist, Lester “The Lion” Shulklapper, pushes through one more regulation about how much money you can make to keep under the rent guidelines in New York. Make no mistake about it — these people have friends in both parties, but they have always found the most sympathetic ears in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

So, you had better bet that renters in New York are waiting to see what will happen to them this time around as the powerful lobbyists and legislators make their deals. As always, big money will find its way into the campaign war chests of friends in both parties while the renters are far less organized. New York City, Democrats know that if they allow things to go too far, they risk political reprisal and so each year it’s just a matter of the death of a thousand cuts. Each year, more New Yorkers are thrown out of their apartments because of what the Legislature does. The only hope is a trade between those paying too much in taxes who live in upstate New York and those New Yorkers who have come to loath the political class in Albany who are forcing them to move out of their homes. So look for a deal between the tax cap people, including Governor Cuomo on the one hand and the Democratic Assembly and rent control on the other. You have to remember that if it doesn’t happen, it’s never really been about what people need, just what is good for the politicians.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/3/11

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