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What Should Be Done To Protect Renters in Expensive Cities?

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Since for at least some of you, evidently rent control is the greatest evil in human history, I am wondering what should be done to protect renters?

More than three dozen New York officials stepped into a high-profile court battle over rent stabilization yesterday, filing a brief on behalf of tenants who have sued their Lower Manhattan landlord, claiming they were denied rent caps that should have been guaranteed under a state tax program.

The fight between residents of 90 West Street and developer Kibel Companies, which ProPublica first chronicled in a story published in May, could determine the legality of two decades of rent increases in more than a dozen downtown high rises.

Developers received hefty tax breaks for converting these former office buildings into luxury rentals under an obscure program known as 421-g. In exchange, they were supposed to provide tenants with leases that limited yearly rent increases to levels set by the city. In practice, they often haven’t, maintaining that units renting for more than a certain amount (now 2,700 dollars) were not subject to rent stabilization.

The amicus brief filed late Thursday afternoon by New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, twelve state senators, twelve assembly members, and thirteen city council members, all Democrats, accuses Kibel of claiming a “windfall grant of tax abatements…in exchange for nothing at all.”

Officials said they decided to wade into the case, in part, to demand stronger oversight of an array of programs that swap tax benefits for rent limits, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of units citywide. Preserving rent-stabilized units has become an increasingly hot political issue, with many local leaders calling for Mayor Bill de Blasio to do more to expand lower-cost housing options.

“The deal behind 421-g was clear—tax breaks for housing in lower Manhattan must include more affordable housing,” State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who represents the neighborhood, said in a statement. “It is not acceptable to shortchange the tenants or the community.”

I am not saying rent control is the only answer. But I do think it can and should be part of the answer. Not having rent control certainly isn’t working. And those who oppose it have no program to fix these problems. Just saying “build more housing units” doesn’t work well in many cities, where foreign billionaires are buying up whole floors of the luxury apartment complexes arising in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities. Of course, we do need a lot more housing units. But if you are a developer and you have control over what kind of housing unit you build, why not go for the profit on the high-end? Obviously that’s what you are going to do. Far more mandates are needed on rent control and the types of housing that are built. Unfortunately, we do not have that and whole cities are becoming completely unlivable for the working-class, or even the upper middle-class in the cases of New York and Vancouver. And that’s simply not sustainable in any way.

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