Rudy’s Rent-Raiser Encounters with the RGB’s Decontrol Ideologue

In his first year as a member of the Rent Guidelines Board, Giuliani appointee Paul Atanasiomade his mark as an open opponent of rent regulations. His main initiative was the unsuccessfulattempt to let landords raise rents on some vacant apartments to $1,000 a month, regardless ofwhat the previous tenant paid.

After the RGB approved the proposal at its preliminary-guidelines meeting in May 1995,Atanasio said he supported deregulating rents because the free market “is a more efficient way ofproviding affordable housing.” I asked him how a middle-class family making $550 a week aftertaxes could afford a $1,000 two-bedroom apartment. “That’s why I support Governor Pataki’splan for tax cuts,” he replied. “People would be allowed to keep more of their money.”

Later, I called him up to get his response to critics of his proposal. He contended that it wouldactually cause lower rents in some apartments. If rents were deregulated, he said, a $1,000apartment could go up to $1,500, but a less desirable apartment in the same building might dropfrom $800 to $400. I asked him how that would happen. “Are you interviewing me or debatingme?” he angrily demanded before hanging up. I was trying to be objective, but his argumentdidn’t make sense.

Is Atanasio, an investment-banking executive, actually naive enough to believe that decontrolwould cause any rents to drop to $400? I don’t think so, even though the first figure he gave mefor a middle-class rent was $2,000 a month. (A family spending 25 percent of its income on rentwould have to make $96,000 a year to cover that amount; the median income for New York Cityrenters is about $20,000.) I think that he is politically savvy enough to know that if the mayorwho appointed him wants to get re-elected, unbridled free-market class-war ideology_the beliefthat landlords have the right to charge whatever rents they can get away with, and if people can’tafford it the government has no right to interfere_is far too cold-blooded to be declared publicpolicy. You have to fool the likely victims into believing they might come out ahead.