For decades, New York has owed a key part of its allure—its unwillingness to honor class divisions with geographic ones—to rent stabilization. Under the system, which governs rents for a million apartments in the city, wildly different tax brackets can be found sharing walls, watts, and water pipes. But is a rule that limits rent increases to prescribed percentages—and flies in the face of both soaring costs and a runaway market—still viable?
Not for MetLife, which is selling Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the fabled middle-class enclave where some 8,000 apartments still rent for about half the market price. Elsewhere, more than 200,000 units throughout the city have been deregulated since 1993, and virtually all new construction, promises of “affordable housing” aside, is betting the farm on luxury.
Economists have long debated the wisdom of rent stabilization. Tenants and landlords debate it, too—but at a much louder volume. In June, the Rent Guidelines Board’s vote on the size of the next increase incited protests so vigorous that the clamor, for the first time ever, temporarily shut down the process. In an atmosphere close to a Tammany-era riot, the board ushered in a hike of 4.25 percent.
Among the few landlords testifying before the board (to heckles of “Sell!” and “Get out of town!”) was Gail Stein Weinstein, a short, shy, bespectacled woman hardly fitting the cartoonishly villainous archetype. Many rent-stabilized buildings in New York are owned by companies with lots of holdings. Weinstein, who owns a few small buildings, was trying to make the case for a heretofore unnoticed third front in the landlord-tenant standoff: the small, dedicated property owner—buoyed on one side by the berserk market and beset on the other by skyrocketing costs.
To evaluate her claim, and those of others like her, we attempted a dissection of one of her properties, a 28-unit, six-story pile of red brick smack in the middle of the East Village. The building, typical in some ways but decidedly unconventional in others, has been around for 103 years, but its present identity and core cast of characters fell together in the early eighties, on the intersection of drugs, punk, art, and AIDS. Madonna lived on the fifth floor back when she was better known as D.J. Jellybean Benitez’s weird girlfriend. An alleged murderer was once its super. Tim Miller, a co-founder of P.S. 122, still performs a one-man piece about it—titled The Maw of Death. He exaggerates, but not by much.
As late as 1988, cabbies made their fares get off a full block to the west. Times changed; taxis are a popular complaint topic (they double-park in front of the entrance). The building’s tenants, however, even after a full decade of rampant gentrification, are a motley mix of Village vintages: a starving artist and a Disney artist, a carpenter and a caterer, an architect and a dancer.
We persuaded most of them to disclose their lease terms, and Weinstein to contribute some numbers of her own. What we saw was a uniquely New York kind of mess: Rents stuck in the Koch era and rents thrown at the market’s mercy; stylishly appointed units nestled next to appalling counterparts; lingering megacelebrity afterglow and a dose of murder most foul. And a landlord whose profits hinge almost entirely on her market-rate tenants.
In grand old New York City tradition, Apartment 1 belongs to the super. Or, in our case, the supers: Alberto Roman and Louise Boccanfuso. As befits their position, the couple knows everything there is to know about every tenant and are said to hold the errant ones on a short leash. Their dog, not so much: The tenants in apartment 23 claim to have been attacked and bitten by the couple’s free-roaming beast, and reported it to the ASPCA and the city. Whether this is true or not, Alberto and Louise are a clear improvement over one Jose Antonio Ramos, the building’s super in the late seventies. Ramos, currently serving a term in Pennsylvania for molesting two boys, is widely believed to be behind one of New York City’s most notorious child murders. Six-year-old Etan Patz, who disappeared blocks away in May 1979, sparked a media frenzy and became the nation’s first-ever face on a milk carton. As late as the summer of 2000, the police brought cadaver dogs to the building and dug up the basement in a fruitless search for the body. Patz’s parents won a wrongful-death civil case against Ramos in 2004. He was succeeded by a more amenable super, whose quirks were limited to keeping twelve dogs, practicing Santeria, and carrying a machete.
CURRENT TENANT: 4 years
RENT: about $1,400
RENT: about $2,200
See No. 19.
CURRENT TENANT: 1 year
RENT: about $2,200
Caterer Steven Hoertz shares this one-bedroom with his boyfriend. He moved in last June, after Weinstein had renovated the apartment and flipped it out of regulation. This can be done when the stabilized rent naturally reaches $2,000 a month or—landlords’ preferred method—by nudging the price up through renovations; the law allows 2.5 percent of those costs to be passed on to the tenant (which often leads to puffed-up contractor bills). Hoertz pays what he terms “the market price” and considers the deal to be fair. He asks not to divulge the exact rent for fear of jeopardizing his relationship with Weinstein. Hoertz is positively giddy about one particular legacy of his address: “We feel Madonna’s aura in the building.”
CURRENT TENANT: 24 years
The building’s longest-running lease is held by Fred Jorio, an Italian musician. Jorio used to know the young Ms. Ciccone through her brother, with whom he roomed; as for his own star encounters, he says drily, “She borrowed my hammer and never returned it.” Oddly enough, a decade later Jorio found himself remixing two of Madonna’s hits, “Secret” and “Bedtime Stories,” with D.J. Junior Vasquez. Jorio is also the building’s most spectacular beneficiary of rent stabilization. Weinstein says he started at $344.02 in 1982 and now, after two dozen years’ worth of maximum allowed rent increases, pays $568 a month for three bedrooms.
CURRENT TENANT: 23 years
RENT: About $590
CURRENT TENANT: 18 years
Seven (we’ll call the tenants who haven’t explicitly allowed us to use their names by their apartment numbers) moved into the building in 1988, when it was still, he says, “on the worst drug block in New York City.” He, his wife (also a painter), and their son share a small one-bedroom: about 400 square feet of twisting, angular space. In harder times, Weinstein would accept Seven’s paintings in lieu of rent. “She has a decent collection of my stuff,” he says sheepishly. In 1999, she converted her nearby office into the Philip Alan art gallery, a “tenant-landlord collaborative” named after Weinstein’s son, where artwork by the couple was frequently featured. Seven’s relationship with Weinstein has deteriorated recently, which he laments. He says he and his wife had to sue for damages in a surreal case wherein Weinstein and the combative dancer in No. 20 came to blows in the gallery, breaking his artwork in the process. To compare their rent with the price a more recent arrival pays for the exact same layout, see No. 12.
CURRENT TENANT: under a year
RENT: about $2,600
See No. 19.
CURRENT TENANT: 19 years
RENT: about $875
Michael Brunschweiler— a sad-eyed, soft-voiced lighting designer with the cautious manner of a disaster survivor—is another veteran of the building. He moved in on September 1, 1987 (he remembers the exact date). The rent ran $600 back then, split six ways between six young theater hopefuls. As the area gentrified, the apartment’s population dwindled. When I visited, Brunschweiler had just returned after a yearlong absence, and his last roommate had moved out in the meantime. “Three-bedroom” is actually an understatement: There are four rooms here, plus an honest-to-God antechamber. Destabilized, it would easily fetch north of $3,000 a month. This is, without a doubt, the most spectacular unit in the building: spacious, light-filled, with a bathroom done up in blue tile that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ian Schrager hotel. Since Brunschweiler did most of the renovations himself, he enjoys Weinstein’s good graces. “Whenever she needs to show someone an apartment,” he says, “she shows mine.”
CURRENT TENANT: 12 years
CURRENT TENANT: over 10 years
RENT: About $1,000
Tweed Theater Works began here in 1983 as a one-off private party for David, an Israeli-born male model and a friend of Kevin Malony’s (see No. 18) who died of aids in 1985. The current tenant is a thirtysomething manager of Blue Ribbon Bakery who couldn’t be reached for this story. Going further back in time, Weinstein’s archives reveal a yellowed lease from 1973—the year when the apartment went out of rent control and into stabilization—and one Rosa Diaz rented it for $135 a month.