Rent Control

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 17 1997 9:30 PM

Rent Control

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From:  Jacob Weisberg
 To:  Malcolm Gladwell
 

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Dear Malcolm,

       I'm terribly sorry if I said something in my last response that caused you to lose your temper. I'm not sure what it could have been. But in any case, what bothers me is not your rudeness toward me. We're friends, so I know it's personal. What troubles me is your callousness about the quality of life in the city where you live, and your unseemly hostility toward those less fortunate than yourself.
       Tossing me a late-stage red herring, you answer an argument I never made about rent control preserving housing for the very poor in Manhattan. As I have noted from the beginning, that's not the principal issue. Most really poor people who live in Manhattan get more direct housing subsidies. Those I'm most worried about are those you characterized, before you began finding my rather pedestrian argument incomprehensible, as "quirky people."
       You no longer dispute the point that many of these people--schoolteachers, artists, remnants of New York's old ethnic neighborhoods--would be forced out of Manhattan were rents to be deregulated. You just no longer care. Let them move to Harlem, you say, and let me go with them. You're playing a race card with a pretty low face value, given how much time you spend above 96th Street yourself, Malcolm. But let's keep this on a higher plane. Is Manhattan denuded of its economic middle really a place you would want to live? For my own part, I can't think of anything less appealing than your Bonfire of the Vanities version of the city, a place defined by the interplay of the very rich and the very poor. Having failed to respond to my defense of diversity, you now call it "idiosyncratic." Of course it's idiosyncratic! Your position, meanwhile, which might have had a whiff of the contrarian a decade ago, has been the liberal convention for some time. Even the Times now wants to abolish rent control.
       I'm sorry that you haven't, after all, had the good sense to concede the "cool buildings" point. Having claimed, preposterously, that rent control actually encourages the creation of new housing, you now assert that we are both wrong--that housing construction has nothing to do with rent control one way or the other and that the only issue is zoning. Please. I made clear from the outset that rent control is less significant that zoning, and that there are many factors. But rent regulation quite clearly does play a role, and to the extent it does, it stifles new construction by discouraging potential landlords and suppressing demand. (You should have taken my suggestion and given the defensible answer that stifling new construction is a bad thing.)
       Perhaps what drove you into such paroxysms was my pointing out that you yourself are a beneficiary of rent regulations. I'm sorry if you don't like your apartment. Readers might ask whose fault that is. They might also be interested to know that it happens to be on one of the most desirable blocks in the West Village, probably the priciest and most fashionable neighborhood in the city. Isn't that Linda Evangelista's apartment you look into from your window? But your status as "winner" isn't a matter of my opinion; it's an objective fact. Your rent, expressed in four precise digits, is determined by the rent-stabilization rules. In a free market, your sorry hovel would cost more. By the way, did I mention that our mutual friends Josh and Amy are eager to have it now that you're moving into more palatial accommodations?
       It may be worth noting that while we've been having this abstract discussion, the issue has actually been settled in the real world. The compromise worked out on Sunday night is far to the left of what either of us wanted. Landlords are to get slightly higher allotted vacancy increases, and "succession" will be somewhat more limited. Democrats succeeded in making sure that most rich people with deals--the welfare queens of rent control--were protected. In the context of the issue as it has actually played out, we are both abolitionist extremists. The slight difference is that I wanted to phase rent control out slowly over a period of decades while you wanted to nuke it overnight. I'm tempted to claim partial victory, but the truth is that the politicians paid no attention to either of us.

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.

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