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Rent Control ‘Shabbifying’ NY’s Housing As Owners Feel the Squeeze

New York Post

August 5, 2023

Perhaps cowed by tenant protests, the Rent Guidelines Board has backed off rent increases of as much as 16% (for two-year leases) for the city’s 900,000-plus rent-regulated apartments.

That property owners should be limited to modest hikes (2.5% for one-year leases), even as their costs of fuel, taxes and repairs go up, ignores the fact that inflation squeezes landlords just as it does tenants.

So tenants may pay a lower price than otherwise — but they nonetheless bear a significant unrecognized cost: The quality of New York City rent-regulated housing is getting substantially worse.

That can only be expected when owners get squeezed, as they were during years of 0% rent increases under Mayor Bill De Blasio.

The state’s 2019 housing law made matters even worse, barring rent increases for major improvements, lest they enable the alleged ill of gentrification.

But the details of Gotham’s housing maintenance woes should get far more attention.

Buried in a table in the May 2022 Census Bureau Housing and Vacancy Survey is this: A third of rent-regulated units have “rodents” — almost twice the rate of unregulated apartments.

That translates to more than 300,000 rent-regulated rents with rats or mice.

The regulated units also have twice as many leaks (23%, vs. 11%) and three times as many heating breakdowns (17%, vs. 5%).

Three times as many “stabilized units” have mold; twice as many have toilet and elevator breakdowns.

What’s more, 176,000 regulated units had three or more maintenance issues.

The Census report puts it this way: “Housing quality declined across all housing types, though it was too early to know if this was a short-term result of pandemic conditions that delayed repairs and maintenance or a more systemic shift in living conditions.” 

A systemic shift would matter a lot.

It would mean that, in coming years, our fear should not be gentrification but what I call “shabbification” — more rodents, more leaks, more days walking up stairs when the elevator is out.

Perhaps, some would argue, that’s the price that must be paid to ensure those of modest means are not forced out of the city.

Yet 22% of rent-stabilized tenants, per the Census, have incomes of $100,000 or more.

Nothing requires rent-stabilized-unit owners to rent to those of low income — nor to minority tenants.

The largest group of rent-stabilized tenants consists of white non-Hispanics.

Nor is it true that New York landlords have the whip hand and would raise rents like Scrooges were they not reined in by regulation. 

The Census data suggests another story: The city’s vacancy rate has moved up sharply — almost to the 5% level at which the city would no longer, under the law, be in a housing emergency.

What’s more, just because the Guideline Board says landlords can raise rents doesn’t mean they will.

In The Bronx, the average new “contract” rent ($1,200) is actually lower than the citywide rent-stabilized average ($1,400).

Had the board allowed rents to go up 16%, asking prices might not have actually gone up that much.

Indeed, one wonders what would happen if rent regulation just disappeared.

The difference between median regulated rents ($1,400) and unregulated rents ($1,825) is not nearly as great as protestors would have folks think.

And the rising vacancy rate suggests market discipline would apply to these newly unregulated property owners.

They also might have to start investing in repairs to attract tenants — which might begin to reverse the shabbiness that’s overtaking the city’s housing stock.

Perennial battles between tenants and landlords reflect a New York housing market that’s deeply distorted — for the worse.

Wealthy tenants get to live in price-regulated (i.e, subsidized) apartments.

Older households stay in low-rent units with empty bedrooms while young newcomers double and triple up.

Asian households, the fastest-growing population group in the city, are — per the Census — the most overcrowded; they’re the smallest group in both rent-stabilized and public housing.

The Census data doesn’t lie: New York City’s housing market is badly broken.