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'Rentregulitus' flares again in New York

The "world's skinniest skyscraper" at 111 W. 57th

The "world's skinniest skyscraper" at 111 W. 57th St. is to rise to 1,428 feet (that's 30 feet taller than its neighbor, 432 Park Ave.), but will only be 60 feet wide. As a result, the 80-story building will be home to just 60 apartments when it's completed in early 2018. Though sales have not yet begun, apartments will reportedly start at $14 million apiece and could be as expensive as $100 million, according to Curbed. Credit: SHoP

Thousands of New Yorkers suffer from a mentally debilitating malady. It's called rentregulitus and it turns otherwise rational people daft.

It comes from leases on rent-regulated apartments. The moment you sign one, any feelings of good fortune you might experience in landing the lease are supplanted by a sense of entitlement. A stabilized junior four with a park view can instantly turn a Milton Friedman conservative into a Jacob Riis radical, so powerful is the bite of self interest.

More than a million apartments in the city are regulated, giving tenants real clout with elected leaders on both sides of the aisle. I spent the early 1990s working for "pro-tenant" Republicans on Manhattan's East Side. I wrote countless news releases and mailers defending the rent regulation system in those years, but I never convinced myself of its fairness. Only getting a regulated apartment of my own could have done that.

Rent regulations expire on June 15, so it's no surprise that the renewal issue is boiling over again. Political stakes are high. A handful of elected officials went so far as to get arrested in Albany last week to show fidelity to rent-regulated constituents.

The fight centers mostly on luxury decontrol, the mechanism by which stabilized apartments revert to the free market when rents reach $2,500 per month in households earning $200,000 a year. Decontrol advocates want it repealed. On the side of rent control, others have suggested upping the annual income threshold to $250,000, which would also qualify those tenants for New York's "millionaire's tax." That's how off-kilter the debate has become.

Longtime critics of apartment price controls, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, vigorously maintain that rent regulations are counterproductive. Krugman cited a poll of the American Economic Association in a June 2000 column. Ninety-three percent of its membership agreed in the survey that "a ceiling on rents reduces the quality and quantity of housing."

Rational people might look at the lack of available housing in NYC today and think that those economists might have been on to something. But images of elected leaders being hauled away in cuffs remind us that New York is anything but rational where subsidized housing is concerned.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.