Rent Control

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 16 1997 9:30 PM

Rent Control

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From:  Malcolm Gladwell
 To:  Jacob Weisberg
 

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Dear Jacob,
       I'm sorry that you misinterpreted an act of charity on my part--dropping the "cool buildings" argument--for surrender. My feeling was that it was both in your best interest and in the best interests of our readers if I didn't prompt another round of Weisbergian rumination on the virtues of early-20th-century architecture. Suffice to say that there is a very good reason why Manhattan still has lots of cool old buildings, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with the presence (or potential absence) of rent regulation. It's called zoning. Perhaps when you feel the urge once again to venture into the intellectual unknown, you could write a column about it.
       But let's return to what is clearly the main issue here, which is your particular affection for those people who happen to have lucked into great apartment deals. I am, sadly, not one of them--unless you call 450 square feet on the sixth floor of a six-floor walk-up with intermittent hot water and approximately 2 feet of closet space for $1,294 a month a great deal. I happen not to, which makes me a Loser as well. Sorry about that. Does that mean you won't like me anymore? Am I now one of those making Manhattan a "shallower, more present-minded place"?
       Whatever. I'm afraid that when you get into what I thought was a relatively straightforward account of Winners and Losers you began to lose me. So let's go over things a little slower this time. Abolition, you say, won't bring rents down far enough to allow middle- or low-income people to find decent apartments in Manhattan. Now this is a slightly problematic statement, since there actually is lots of low- and middle-income housing in Manhattan north of 96th Street, and east of, say, Avenue B on the lower side, and, for the sake of argument, east of Chrystie below Houston. So what you really mean is that abolition will make it hard for lower-income people to find decent apartments in upper-income neighborhoods in Manhattan. But, come to think of it, this isn't true either, since there is lots of public housing, subsidized housing, and apartments reserved for low-income people through various city, state, and federal programs (80/20 programs, for example) within those neighborhood boundaries. So what you're really saying is that after abolition it will be difficult for those current rent regulation Winners who happen to be members of the lower-middle class to find decent housing in middle- and upper-middle-class, non-subsidized buildings. And you find this state of affairs intolerable, as far as I can tell, because you think having those current rent regulation Winners who happen to be lower-middle class around the type of upper-middle-class, non-subsidized buildings you want to live in makes those buildings more interesting. This is a somewhat idiosyncratic position. But I suppose it's reasonable enough. I would point out, though, that there is a much easier way to satisfy this desire of yours, namely that instead of advocating a ruinous housing policy for everyone in New York City you could simply move to one of those neighborhoods in New York where there already are lots of interesting lower-middle-class people around. There are plenty of apartments, believe it or not, in Harlem. Some day, if you have the time, I'll show you where that is on the map.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent.

This dialogue grows out of Jacob Weisberg's piece "Such a Deal: The Romance of Rent Control" in SLATE.