Rent-control fans protest think tank — in wrong location

Activists target Manhattan Institute’s billionaire chairman miles from debate site

A photo of the protest (Credit: Housing Justice For All via Twitter)
A photo of the protest (Credit: Housing Justice For All via Twitter)

Champions of the state’s new rent law declared war on billionaires at a protest Wednesday, while their target — leaders of the Manhattan Institute — were miles away.

The pro-tenant groups intended to protest a Financial District panel on rent regulations organized by the free-market think tank, but went to its Midtown headquarters instead.

A representative from the coalition said it was the “wrong address for the panel, but Manhattan Institute and Paul Singer are still very much the right targets.” Singer, a billionaire investor, is chairman of the think tank.

The groups hope to make billionaires pay the tab for progressive causes, including public housing and ending homelessness.

Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute, shook his head when showed a photo on Twitter of the 70 activists who filled the lobby of the group’s Midtown office, banging pots and pans. Protesters hailed from Housing Justice for All and progressive union Communications Workers of America.

The Manhattan Institute has argued for years that rent control curbs the development of affordable housing and haphazardly creates winners and losers rather than directing help to those who need it most. But Salam noted that its event Wednesday was a debate, with voices on both sides of the issue.

“We had an advocate of rent regulation, we had a critic of rent regulation and we had a scholarly voice,” Salam said. “The conversation was certainly not a polemic.”

A Manhattan Institute spokesperson said she was alerted to the protests by staff at its headquarters. She added that she did not see a connection between the activists’ demands and billionaires.

The panel discussion of rent regulation grew heated at times. Ingrid Gould Ellen, director of the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, said the approach that California and Oregon took on rent regulation was “more appealing” than New York’s. Both California and Oregon recently instituted a form of rent control and “good cause” eviction.

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Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the institute, said that the recent changes to the rent law may harm the tenants they were intended to protect because landlords are no longer incentivized to renovate their buildings.

A discussion of means testing, which Husock pointed out as a deficiency of the new law, prompted a comment from Husock that elicited chuckles from the audience.

“We need to have a social policy discussion of whether we should subsidize the lowest of the low-income households, who may have made certain lifestyle choices,” Husock said.

But in the past Husock has called attention to high-income New Yorkers occupying rent-regulated apartments. “Logic and experience,” he recently wrote, “tell us that rent regulations create disadvantages for low-income people: If twice as many people look for apartments as there are available apartments, landlords will rent to those with the higher incomes.”

The panel also included City Council member Brad Lander, who represents Brooklyn neighborhoods including Park Slope and Gowanus. Lander, a co-founder of the Council’s progressive caucus, deemed “fantastic” Husock’s claim that devaluation of buildings by the June revamping of the rent law could be as much as 25 percent. However, a huge rent-stabilized portfolio in Queens just sold for 38% less than the asking price set last winter.

Lander later suggested upzoning suburbs as a way to improve housing affordability. And he observed that aggressive actions by some landlords to push out rent-regulated tenants and convert units to market-rate led to Albany’s sweeping reform, which shocked building owners across the board.

“This is a realpolitik lesson from left to right,” Lander said. “Cutting a better deal required people [in the real estate industry] to name bad actors before [those actors] just poisoned the well. You don’t have to like it, but that is what happened.”

Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners of rent-stabilized apartments, also attended the conference. Strasburg called the panel “interesting” but disputed Lander’s claim that compromises were not offered by the industry.

He also made a sobering prediction for those hoping to overturn the legislation in Albany in 2020, an election year for state legislators.

“We all know that people came up with alternatives, but [Lander] is right that no one wants to deal with this issue this cycle,” Strasburg said. “No one has the stomach for it.”