Anybody who has tried to rent an apartment in New York City knows how expensive they are. At the same time, most pay packets in the city are not much thicker than they were a few years ago, unless you work and thrive on Wall Street. Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Deborah VanAmerongen, the commissioner of the state’s housing agency, eased the burden a little last week when they made it harder for the owners of apartments built under the state’s subsidized Mitchell-Lama program to evict their middle-class tenants.
Mitchell-Lama landlords love to talk about tenants who cling to their apartments long after their salaries are high enough to enable them to move elsewhere. In some cases this is true. But most of the residents in Mitchell-Lama apartments really need their rooms. By shoving their rent up to what the rest of the market can bear, owners could be shoving these tenants on the streets or, more likely, out of the city.
The State Legislature enacted Mitchell-Lama, named after the two legislators who sponsored it, in 1955. The Mitchell-Lama building boom ran from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Under the law, owners of buildings constructed during that period who decide to leave the subsidized program can raise their rents within limits dictated by the state’s rent stabilization rules. They can demand full market rents only under “unique and peculiar circumstances.”
Citing that exception, the owners of 23 buildings in New York City, Westchester and Nassau sought permission to raise the rents for 4,400 units to market levels. According to the state, the “unique and peculiar provision” was designed to cover truly unusual circumstances — when, for instance, an exceptionally low-rent apartment occupied by the building manager became vacant. But the landlords argued that the decision to withdraw from Mitchell-Lama itself constituted a unique and peculiar circumstance.
If the landlords’ argument had prevailed, renters paying $1,000 a month would have seen their rent soar to as much as $5,200. That’s not a rent increase. That’s an eviction notice. But last week, after a lengthy review, the state’s housing agency amended the regulation, effectively closing the loophole. Simply leaving Mitchell-Lama will no longer give landlords of buildings completed before 1974 an excuse to jump to market rates.
Everybody wants New York to thrive, to build to the skies, to nurture the glamorous people who make the city sparkle. But the last thing the city needs is to become an oasis for the rich with no affordable places for teachers or police officers or firefighters or secretaries or nurses or ordinary folks. That is not a real city. It is a wealthy ghetto. [NYT]