Annals Of New York Obliviousness

If you are looking to be entertained by a tidbit of New York obliviousness, you might want to check out the lead article from the New York Times Real Estate Section this past Sunday.  The headline is "When the Landlord Is a Friend."

As background, for my entire life, New York has been characterized by famously contentious relations between residential landlords and tenants.  Regular fodder for the local newspapers is the evil landlord who endlessly schemes to make his tenants' lives miserable and to harass them until they give up and leave the building.  In the middle of the winter the heat suddenly won't work.  A plumbing leak will go unrepaired for weeks.  The front door lock is mysteriously broken.  Eventually the tenant can't take it any more and is forced to depart into the wildly overpriced housing market.  Boo! Hiss!

Now, why would any businessman in his right mind treat a good (or even less than good) customer in such a reprehensible way?  This kind of thing is just about unheard-of in the rest of the United States outside New York.  What's so different about us?  (Here's a clue:  they have some of the same issues in San Francisco.)  The answer, of course, is that New York has rent regulation, keeping something around half of all apartment rents at below fair market value.  In some cases -- particularly in top Manhattan neighborhoods and where tenants have been in place for many years -- the rents can be very far below fair market value, sometimes by thousands of dollars per month.  The rules provide ways for a landlord to raise the rents up to market level, but usually only if the tenant leaves first.  You can now see how the incentive to get the tenant to move can be powerful.  Somehow, the geniuses who created rent regulation never thought that a 70-year war of attrition between landlords and tenants would be one of the consequences of their effort to achieve perfect fairness and justice through government fiat.

But over the past 20 years or so there has been an excruciatingly slow loosening of the rent regulation regime.  An extremely-restrictive system called "rent control" has been gradually supplanted by a somewhat-less-restrictive system called "rent stabilization."  De-regulation at vacancy became possible.  Some old buildings are demolished, and many new ones have no rent regulation.  Rental apartments in buildings that convert to condos become unregulated as tenants move out.  With these and other incremental changes, we have gradually, gradually gotten to a situation where the majority of the rental apartments are outside the regulation system.

And thus, just this past Sunday, the New York Times has discovered that it is actually possible for a landlord and a tenant in New York to be friends.  The long feature article is filled with examples of landlords going out of their way to be nice to tenants:  studying up on how heating systems work, personally doing plumbing repairs, even inviting the tenants over for beers!  Could dogs and cats be next to learn to live in peace?

Of course, if you read through the article with even a slightly critical eye, you will immediately realize that not one of the rental apartments being discussed is under the rent regulation system.  All are newly renovated or in very small buildings, things which would clearly mean that rent regulation does not apply.

But somehow, this being the New York Times, the subject of rent regulation (or lack thereof) being a reason why landlords and tenants can suddenly get along just fine never gets mentioned.