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Interestingly, as MIT housing economist Henry O. Pollakowski observed in a 2003 study, if one takes into account the differences in age, size and location between regulated and unregulated dwellings, rent regulation as it currently stands is really only a factor in your more affluent stretches of Manhattan. In these areas the median monthly subsidy from rent stabilization was (using 1999 numbers, the most recent available) about $400. In the Bronx the median subsidy came to roughly $60 per month. In the LES, Upper Manhattan, Chinatown and Brooklyn, meanwhile, the median monthly subsidy was less than $10. In Queens and Staten Island it was effectively $0.
And yet, despite the comparatively small band of renters benefiting from regulation, and the fairly strong case against it, the program remains wildly popular among city residents. Polls place support for rent control/stabilization in the 70 to 80 percent range.
Now, to an extent this is probably simple humanitarianism. New York’s housing market is, in the popular imagination, a wildly volatile beast, and even those already paying the decontrolled rate are understandably hesitant to let it off its leash. But beyond this there’s something else — in addition to providing some small measure of stability to the city’s renting public, the system as it’s currently rigged serves to glorify that most New York of virtues — savvy.
Anyone willing to toss down two grand a month can find a suitable West Village studio. To snag one for 400 a month, though — well, now, there’s a true urban operator. And this is the Dream of New York — to, by dint of connections, a bit of savoir faire, and the occasional shady deal, grab a little bit bigger slice of the city than you really ought to be entitled to. Not everyone can make it happen — Lord knows I haven’t exactly pulled it off (rickety hovel above a major thoroughfare, remember?) — but those who do are an inspiration to us all.
It’s something like a version of the Protestant Work Ethic adapted for a city of heathens. Instead of wealth and productivity, free stuff and insider schemes are the marks of God’s favor. Complimentary Yankee tickets, drinks at clubs given gratis, a spacious abode at half the market price — these are the things that money can’t buy. They are simply bestowed upon those with the good fortune to be in the know. And this, after all, is what life lived well in New York is all about. Given enough quid you can get your hands on just about anything. But if you really know what you’re doing, you can get it for free.
And as such, rent control is more than just a social program. It’s an artifact of the city’s spirit. There has long been a tale floating around — possibly apocryphal — that when Ed Koch moved into Gracie Mansion after taking over as mayor in the late 1970s, he still held on to his six-room rent-controlled Greenwich Village pad. For some, the tale speaks to the absurdities of regulation. For others, it’s an anecdote about government corruption. To me, though, it’s just another story of a guy who knew how to play the angles. Ed was paying 400 bucks a month on a $1,200-a-month place. What was he supposed to do? Just hand it over? Really now? Would you? After all, this is New York City, where there’s no higher mark of your worth as a human being than an ability to work the system, no surer sign of your seat amongst the Elect than knowing a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.