Tuesday, March 17, 2009

While the Burst Housing Bubble Destroys America, He Says "Build, Build, Build!"

This post is cross-posted at the beta Clyde Fitch Report. Do check it out and send comments.

I didn't want too much time to elapse before commenting on an op-ed that ran in the Times last Sunday. It's written by a man named Charles J. Urstadt, and before I write a little bit about who he is, let's take a good look at his piece, in which he writes that "land expansion is now the key to our economic recovery." In fact, he says, there are five ways Manhattan (I guess the other four boroughs can sink into the sea) can grow:

1. Develop Governor's island. Among other things, "The success of Battery Park City shows that this can be done without government money: building owners would pay ground rent and payments in lieu of taxes (known as Pilot payments) to an organization not unlike the Battery Park City Authority, which would then deduct operating costs and pay the “profits” to the city." And yes, Urstadt addresses, rather flimsily in my view, the accessibility issue.

2. Tear down Pier A at the foot of Manhattan: "Better to replace the pier with a five-acre quay similar to the Circular Quay in Sydney. A quay could serve as a central ferry terminal, which would pay for itself with fees paid by the ferry boat operators."

3. Develop the South Cove of Battery Park City, adding two acres to Manhattan: "By simply extending the existing bulkhead, eliminating the cove and filling it with sand — as we did to create the rest of Battery Park City — we would have the base for an iconic building....Again, ground rents and Pilot payments would more than pay for the bulkhead and landfill with no expenditure of taxpayer money — and a monumental building on that new land could also produce a substantial profit for the city."

4. Develop 50 more acres of landfill in the Hudson River on the West Side, north of Battery Park City: "The cost of the landfill, as well as of the public park and recreational spaces that would be part of the new area, could be reimbursed from ground rents and Pilot payments collected from private developers. I have been advocating this additional landfill project for some time and have been faced with the bogus argument that it would kill the fish." Oh, and by the way, Urstadt says that "fish actually prefer the nooks and crannies of the rock formations surrounding Battery Park City’s north marina" and that "not a single fish was killed as we filled the original 92 acres of Battery Park City." (This may be giving you a clue as to who Urstadt is.)

5. Fill in the Harlem River: "....if we were to drain the Harlem River, we would actually restore the land to its original state....eventually the entire area would have some 3,000 acres that could be used for parks, schools, businesses and homes."

Notice how Urstadt referes to housing last. As if people matter less than buildings. Well, this man would know: he was the chairman of the Battery Park City Authority from 1968 to 1978, as per the tagline on the Times story. More pertinent, though, Urstadt is the author and/or purveyor of many anti-renter, anti-apartment dwelling law and guideline in New York City. In short, he is the reason your rent is so high. Check out this page on tenant.net:

The Urstadt Law, named after Charles Urstadt, former Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s housing commissioner, was enacted in 1971 as part of Rockefeller’s vacancy-decontrol legislation. It specifically barred New York City from adopting rent limitations that are “more stringent or restrictive than those presently in effect” even as the housing crisis deepened.

As a result the democratic will of New York City residents is frustrated and the local legislature left powerless to address local housing conditions. From the vacancy-decontrol disaster of the 1970s to the weakening of rent and eviction protections in 1997, New York City real-estate interests have been able to use campaign contributions to buy support from upstate legislators—while city voters are ignored. The Urstadt Law is the basis for a pending lawsuit by property owners challenging a New York City law concerning building valuation that prevented landlords from giving enormous hikes to New York City’s 70,000 remaining rent-controlled households. It also restricts the City Council from reversing the massive deregulation imposed by the state legislature in 1993 and 1997.

By preventing the City Council from acting to preserve affordable housing, the Urstadt Law is an unconscionable restriction on the democratic “home rule” of New York City residents. It restricts our ability to control our policy and our destiny on a strictly local issue.

…But even though the ETPA reversed Rockefeller’s vacancy-decontrol measure, state courts have held that the Urstadt Law remains in effect and prevents cities “having a population of one million or more” (i.e., New York City) from enacting stronger rent regulations without the approval of the state housing commissioner. The Urstadt law does not prevent cities from exercising “police powers” to protect life, health and safety by regulating building conditions, evictions and other areas where health and safety are involved.

Charles Urstadt’s curse on New York City tenants did not stop with the 1971 law which bears his name. A major real-estate owner, he was one of the architects of Governor George Pataki’s 1994 transition platform, which made explicit the intention to end rent and eviction protections entirely, a promise which took giant steps toward realization in the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997.

Here's an excerpt from another story -- this one from Gotham Gazette -- on this paragon of urban development:
Ask most housing advocates what one move would improve the lot of tenants in New York City, and they would answer: Repeal of the Urstadt Law. The state law, which then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through in 1971, and which Governor George Pataki strengthened in 2003, is named after Rockefeller’s housing commissioner, Charles Urstadt. For more than three decades, it has effectively handcuffed the city when it comes to dealing with the main problems facing housing here -- rents and evictions.

That is because the law largely took control of rent regulation out of the hands of the city government and gave it to the state legislature. The legislature, a body with many representatives from upstate districts that have few renters, has weakened rent regulation laws year after year. Changes in the rent regulation laws have resulted in what some estimate to be more than 100,000 rent stabilized apartments in New York City becoming “decontrolled” – the rents hiked up to whatever the landlord wants to charge.
Oh, and Mr. Urstadt appears to live in Connecticut. Go figure.

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