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Landlords vs. tenants: The debate on rent stabilization

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Pro: West Village building owner says landlords are not always 'fat cats'

The perception of fat-cat landlords taking advantage of tenants chafes at Jimmy Silber, whose 16-story West Village apartment building has been in his family since the 1930s.

A vote before the Rent Guidelines Board on Monday to increase rents on regulated units would be a welcome relief for apartment building owners in the city, he said.

"It's an individual that usually runs a building," said Silber, 64. "These small owners operate on the fringe. It can be a struggle every year because their costs are going up, too."

The problem isn't simply that owners are making less income from rent-regulated units, Silber said. Landlords also have hefty expenses: One-third of the income they receive from rents must go toward city real-estate taxes; they have utility costs, such as for water, sewers and fuel, as well as salaries to pay if they employ doormen.

The Rent Stabilization Association said government mandates also have added to these costs, including requirements to use eco-friendly - but more expensive - fuel oil in their buildings.

About 70 percent of Silber's 120 units are rent-regulated. Some of those studios go for around $1,000 a month, and one-bedrooms for $1,200. That's still dramatically below market rate for the neighborhood, where the standard is about $3,000 a month.

Silber's financial livelihood was threatened in 2003 after he dealt with a tenant whose apartment was crammed with garbage, rotting food and cat waste. The tenant's negligence forced Silber into a seven-year court battle that cost him more than $100,000 before he could evict her.

Rent regulations, while ideal for tenants, can be burdensome for struggling building owners, he added. "Real estate values are determined by location - but with rent regulations, that's not the case," Silber said. "Is this America? Is this capitalism?" 

Con: Tenant advocates say regs help maintain city diversity

"We're in a gray area," said Vivian Riffelmacher, describing her living situation in Washington Heights with her husband, Matt Abuelo.

The couple pays $1,380 a month for their rent-regulated one-bedroom in a gentrifying neighborhood near New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

"We don't know what's going to happen to us. A few months from now, I don't know if Matt will have a job," lamented Riffelmacher, 48, who works in hospital administration. Her husband works under contract as a media technician.

They worry about having to leave the city if Abuelo's work runs out. Around them, apartments are being converted to market rate, fetching upward of $2,000 a month.

"I don't get a big fat raise every year," Riffelmacher scoffed.

So what does it matter if one more working-class family is squeezed out of their neighborhood?

Rent-stabilized tenant Emily Pinkowitz, 30, of Prospect Heights, said the city would lose its diversity, and that people with working-class salaries wouldn't be able to live in the same communities in which they work.

"Rent regulations are so important because they preserve neighborhoods," Pinkowitz said.

Abuelo said the rent board should do a better job demanding that landlords open their books "to really determine how bad it is for them."

Tenant advocates have even called for outright rent freezes in this struggling economy - something landlords said would be unfair when their own costs have gone up. Either way, Riffelmacher said, rent regulations are crucial.

"They mean a place for people to live," she said.

Councilman Brad Lander (D-Park Slope) agreed, saying: "We would sacrifice the soul of the city if we didn't have rent regulations."

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