Manhattan attorney Jim Harmon has asked the high court to decide whether rent-stabilization regulations, as applied to his five-story brownstone on the upper West Side, are so severe as to amount to an unconstitutional taking of his property.
And well they should. This is a case that demands full attention and a definitive ruling.
To understand why Harmon has mounted this effort, put yourself in his shoes.
You inherit a brownstone from your parents in 2005 — only to find that the building is not fully yours to use as you see fit.
That’s because three of six tenants are covered by the extreme protections of the state’s rent-stabilization law.
Whether you like it or not, you have to accept rent that’s 59% below the going rate in your neighborhood — when your tenants can clearly afford more. (One owns a house in the Hamptons.)
Whether you like it or not, you — and perhaps your descendants as well — will have to go on housing those people at a steep discount, with no end in sight.
In fact, the tenants could effectively transfer their to-die-for deal to a family member or a friend who moves in with them for three years — and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Even if you try to rent one of the units to a grandchild — as Harmon did — you can be tied up in court for years.
Harmon considers this a case of the government denying him private property rights without a good reason and without just compensation — a violation of the Fifth Amendment.
He argues that the legal basis for rent regulation is a logical absurdity — a so-called housing emergency that has been going on continuously since World War II.
He argues that there’s little rhyme or reason in who benefits, with well-off people enjoying huge breaks while many with lower incomes pay market prices.
He argues, citing prominent economists, that rent regulation does more harm than good for the city’s housing market.
These points got him nowhere with lower courts, one of which suggested he could exercise his property rights by demolishing the building — except he can’t, because it’s in a historic district.
His last chance is in the highest court in the land — which hasn’t taken up a challenge to rent laws since the 1920s, when Oliver Wendell Holmes declared they were on the “verge” of being unconstitutional.
It’s high time for the justices, who include four New Yorkers, to revisit the question.