The Lower East Side is one of Manhattan’s more desirable neighborhoods now, but when JoAnn Wypijewski moved to her rent stabilized one bedroom here in 1979, it wasn’t.
Ambi: Lower east side street, door buzzer, then muffled though intercom “Hello?” Door opening and walking up the stairs.
Her fifth floor walk up is about 400 square feet. You can see the top of the Empire State Building from nearly all of the seven windows. In 1979 the rent was 175 dollars a month. She says it wasn’t just the price that lured her here.
Wypijewski: On summer nights the old ladies would sit in their folding chairs downstairs, and they would be in their housecoats, and there would be gossiping about this and that. It was very old Lower East Side, there was something timeless about it.
In the last thirty-three years, she’s put a lot of time and money into her place, plastering, redoing the floors, and building floor to ceiling bookcases. She’s a freelance writer and editor, who loves to read. Now she pays 609 dollars a month, still cheap for Manhattan. But she says she and her neighbors invest more in the property than money.
Wypijewski: Chances are, if you have a low rent, you’re not going anywhere. We are the most involved in the building, we are the one who bang on the door of the neighbor when we smell smoke. Really it’s the long range tenants who are defending their homes.
But some landlords tell housing officials it’s impossible to maintain buildings on widely varying rents. Rent control laws date from the 1940’s — they were emergency measures to keep housing affordable during inflation. In 1969, New York added rent stabilization so landlords could increase rent by a percentage every year.
New York’s one of the only cities still hanging on to rent regulation, says Jack Freund. He helps run the Rent Stabilization Association, representing landlords in this fight.
Freund: The owner in effect has lost control of a very key portion of a bundle of rights that constitute ownership in the United States, and that is the right to exclude somebody from their property, and the right to use that property for their own purposes.
Tenants can hand both rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments down to family, and landlords can’t kick them out or change the rent. That’s called property in perpetuity. And the landlord plaintiffs in the possible Supreme Court case take issue with it. Stabilized tenant JoAnn Wypijewski is also a tenant rights activist. She says these individuals aren’t gaming the system. Many depend on the regulation to survive, but says landlords never see it that way.
Wypijewski: They don’t go to the City Council meetings and there sits an old man who is saying to the council members, this is what I make every month, this is what I get from Social Security, this is what I get from my pathetic little pension. You are looking at the future homeless.
All this may begin to change in two weeks when The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case. Jack Freund, the landlord advocate, says he thinks they will but doesn’t want to jinx it. But JoAnn Wypijewski thinks the court won’t hear the claim, and that she’ll live in her apartment another thirty years.
Acacia Squires, Columbia Radio News.