Rent Control

From: Jacob Weisberg To: Malcolm Gladwell

Dear Malcolm,

       I appreciate your surrendering on my point about rent control protecting New York’s old and interesting buildings. On the other half of my argument, that rent control also protects New York’s old and interesting people, I see I still have some work to do.
       If I understand you correctly, you think the difference between rent control’s winners and losers is entirely arbitrary. The only distinction is that the winners are older. The losers include middle-class and poor people who are squeezed out of the Manhattan real-estate market altogether. So you fail to see any basis for preferring the winners to the losers.
       The fairly obvious fallacy in your argument is the assumption that absent rent control, Manhattan would be full of apartments for people at all income levels. It wouldn’t. Abolition would bring market rents down, perhaps noticeably, but not enough for middle- or low-income people to find decent apartments in Manhattan.
       Let’s get personal for a minute. You, who I happen to know benefit from rent regulation (opposing it in part perhaps out of an understandable sense of guilt), are a winner. I, who do not benefit (and defend rent control in part perhaps out of a need to be contrary) am a loser. But neither of us needs a subsidy to live in Manhattan. The people I’m worried about are those who do need help to live in Manhattan. Under the Gladwell plan, they’re history. You would rather protect no middle- or low-income people than only protect some arbitrarily. I, on the other hand, would rather protect some under an imperfect system than protect none. If we had 10 Christmas turkeys and 20 needy families, I’d give them to the first 10 people in line. You’d throw them all away.
       I’m not about to fall for your trick by agreeing that rent control’s winners are poorer than the losers. That would be absurd, because your definition of “losers” includes all those who might like cheap apartments in Manhattan, but can’t find them. The meaningful comparison is between those who occupy apartments now and those who would occupy them if we got rid of rent control. And in that comparison, the winners before are indeed poorer than the winners after–those who occupy apartments now are worse off as a group than those who would live in the same apartments in an unregulated market. If you deny this, Malcolm, you are denying the obvious. By the way, this doesn’t at all undermine my point about the Upper West Side, which seems to have distracted you a great deal. Why didn’t the Upper West Side go the way of Chicago’s old Jewish West Side, and similar neighborhoods elsewhere in the 1960s? Lots of reasons, but I think you have to give some credit to the principal policy that gave middle-class people an incentive to stay put.
       And as far as “arbitrary” preferences go, I don’t think rewarding long-term residence is such a bad one. There’s a recognized principle that people who’ve arranged their lives around a set of rules have some vested right to them. That’s why we have “grandfather” clauses. Before you started off on your current round of geezer-bashing, you yourself often pointed out that Manhattan is an excellent place for old people to live, what with its easy public transportation, cultural opportunities, and advanced system of Chinese food delivery. I think the presence of a lot of older people is also good for us younger ones. New York’s character derives in large measure from its sense of history, which is embodied both in its buildings and its residents. Exile them to live with their own kind in Phoenix and Palm Beach, and you and I will live in a shallower, more present-minded place.