FACT VS. SPIN: Who REALLY Lives in Rent-Regulated Housing?

The New York Times has a long history of virulent opposition to rent regulation, and its latest “news” article on the subject was predictably full of distortions.

While it has been relatively silent on the subject during the past decade, in the 1990s the New York Times editorial page relentlessly — and for the most part, dishonestly — attacked rent regulation in New York City and campaigned for its elimination.

Beginning with a 1992 editorial entitled “The Enduring Cost of Rent Control” — which, believe it or not, favorably cited former Vice President Dan Quayle on the subject! — the Times ed board has been obsessively, aggressively devoted to ending one of the major policies protecting affordable housing and tenants in New York City.

Indeed, in 1997, when then-NYS Senate Majority Leader (now convicted felon) Joe Bruno proposed abolishing rent regulation, the Times ed board cheered the effort on (see here and here and here) — and in the end voiced disappointment with the harmful compromise legislation that ultimately passed and which has dramatically weakened rent regulation.

So, it was no surprise to see the Times publish a “news” article this week that treated rent regulated housing as, of all things, a sort of vanishing perk for celebrities and well-heeled Manhattanites. Think we’re exaggerating?  Well, here’s how the piece begins:

Rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments carry mythic significance to New Yorkers starved for space. These are the high-ceiling homes featured in Woody Allen movies, the places secured by celebrities like Carly Simon, Cyndi Lauper and Ed Koch.

They are the reason that Monica on “Friends” was able to afford her apartment on a chef’s salary.

While the Times piece does go on to acknowledge that Monica “is a fictional character,” the rest of the article is a monument of distortions and fabrications, and very artfully leaves out virtually every important fact about rent regulation in New York City. To whit:

THE SPIN: The article portrays a New York City that consists almost entirely of Manhattan below Harlem, citing less than a half-dozen examples of tenants with low-rent apartments in Little Italy, the Lower East Side, and the Upper East Side – “awe-inspiring, teeth-clenching deals” culled from an “informal survey of some major landlords and real estate agencies….”

The only time the article refers to any part of New York City that is not in Manhattan, this astounding claim is made:

And outside of prime neighborhoods, the restricted rents are not such a great bargain, in many cases barely cheaper than what the apartments could fetch on the open market.

THE FACTS: The basic facts are that, the majority of rent-regulated tenants have low and moderate incomes; one out of four rent-regulated tenants is living in poverty; the large majority of rent-regulated apartments are located outside of Manhattan; and rent-regulated apartments remain much more affordable than non-regulated housing.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 Housing and Vacancy Survey (findings available here and here):

– Of the 3,327,078 housing units in New York City, nearly one out of three (1,023,248 units) is rent-stabilized and an additional 39,901 units are rent-controlled.

– In 2007 before the economic crisis, half of all rent-stabilized tenants earned less than $36,000/year.

– One out of four rent-stabilized tenants has an income below the Federal poverty line. In fact, more poor New Yorkers live in rent-stabilized apartments than in public housing.

– More than 70 percent of all rent-stabilized apartments are located outside of Manhattan.

– In 2008, the median rent for a aren’t-stabilized apartment was $925/month. While the median rent for a non-regulated apartment was $1,200/month, 30 percent more.

One way the Times article could have provided a more reality-based portrait of rent regulation would have been to talk to more tenants outside of Manhattan, and to talk to tenant advocates — but the article instead relies on real estate industry attorneys and other sources.

While the Times article attempts to portray rent regulated housing as a way that a few lucky, well-to-do Manhattanites have managed to cheat their way into paying fabulously low rents for vast, airy apartments — like Monica on “Friends” — the reality is far different. Rent regulation remains one of the most successful and effective policies to preserve New York City’s shrinking stock of affordable rental housing and to protect low-income and working class renters.