A nondescript studio in a nondescript rental building says volumes about New York State’s rent control laws in 2023. The Murray Hill apartment has been occupied by the same European immigrant since the early 1970s. Rent has stabilized over decades, the tenant’s rent had increased incrementally from $300 in 1984 to $890 when he died of COVID in April 2021.
More than two years later, the apartment remains empty. Despite Manhattan Rental prices reach record highs — and thousands of migrants seeking shelter — the landlord won’t spend the thousands of dollars needed to make the unit livable.
New housing laws enacted in 2019 limit the amount landlords can get back from renovating rent-controlled housing – even if the previous tenant has lived there for half a century. So the studio is one of an estimated 40,000 “ghost apartments” across New York — left vacant by landlords in the midst of one of the city’s tightest housing markets.
Few rights are more sacred — or more controversial — than New York City’s roughly 1 million rent-controlled and stabilized apartments. But what if city housing contracts were not only found inadequate, but also unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court?
That’s the scenario landlords are eyeing, having supported a number of intended lawsuits to submit the fate of the rental regulations to the country’s highest court. Now that the Supreme Court has fought its way past the lesser judges by an inch, it could decide as early as the fall whether to accept a case to end New York’s rent stabilization scheme.
While ambitious, the focus on the Supreme Court makes sense both strategically and in terms of timing. The end of Roe v. Wade and Affirmative Action shows the conservative-leaning court’s willingness to overturn even the holiest of cases. Encouraged by such precedents, plaintiffs believe they have a golden opportunity to get the court to rule on what it has already done for abortion and college admissions.
“We are not saying the government has no right to regulate industries, nor are we suggesting victory.” . could inevitably mean the end of rent controls,” said Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a nonprofit organization that represents 4,000 homeowners and is helping them on their way to the Supreme Court. “But according to the constitution, regulated companies must be adequately compensated.”
Attempting to overturn rent controls through the courts is nothing new: For example, in the 2012 case of Harmon v. Kimmel, the rent control was called arbitrary in application — and a violation of a landlord’s right to due process. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, to the great relief of activists and tenants at the time.
Nearly a decade later, in a very different political landscape — and a very different Supreme Court — the attempt to reach the Supreme Court has regained momentum. The Trump-era appointments of Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett have produced the most conservative candidates court in almost a century. About 62% of all cases in the last parliamentary term resulted in right-wing verdictsaccording to statistics from Professors Lee Epstein of Washington University in St. Louis and Keven Quinn of the University of Michigan.
Abolishing abortion and affirmative action were clearly the most prominent conservative decisions. But recent decisions on religious freedoms and regulation of wetlands also indicate an unprecedented level of pro-business sentiment among judges. The court’s June decision to restrict EPA’s efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act is particularly notable given its commitment to the rights of property owners.
The rights of landlords – and the potential illegality of property stolen without adequate compensation – are at the heart of the Supreme Court’s current pushes. The effort began in 2019 Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act — enacted by the same left-leaning state legislature that passed New York State’s much-maligned ordinance Criminal Justice Reform Laws.
Prior to 2019, landlords could spend money as needed to renovate and update vacant units. This spending could then be passed on to new tenants via monthly increments, resulting in some cases in homes falling out of rent regulation.
After 2019, however, landlords can only get the back first $15,000 spent on renovations — passed on to new tenants via a maximum monthly increase of just $89. The 2019 revision brought other changes, such as apartments no longer being allowed to be “deregulated” once they hit a threshold of $2,744 per month.
The result: tens of thousands of vacant apartments whose vacancy is cheaper than investing in modernization, the costs of which, according to landlords, cannot be covered.
Back in 2018, after announcing his resignation, centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy said he felt certain decisions on divisive issues like abortion and LGBT rights are not at risk of being overturned by his Supreme Court succession. Much like Kennedy, residents of blue-state cities have met the rent control threat with a similarly improbable indifference. Like abortion and affirmative action before it, decades of legally protected cheap housing seem like a progressive right too big to fail.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court could consider demolishing New York City apartment buildings as we know them in a matter of months. And it’s not just in New York: a state strike could eventually impact cities across the country — particularly Los Angeles and San Francisco, where nearly all rental units are under some form of control. Nevertheless, the landlords have made their motives clear. Because of this, activists’ cries of shock and horror are likely to fall on deaf ears when the court overturns the rent rules.