NYC building owner deserves his day in the Supreme Court
Justices must decide if rent laws are constitutional
Monday, March 26, 2012, 4:10 AM
J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP
A Manhattan brownstone owner suing over rent laws deserves his day in Supreme Court.
Against long odds, a Manhattan brownstone owner has argued a challenge to New York’s rent laws all the way to the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Upper West Side attorney James Harmon, a former federal prosecutor, contends that government controls on three of the six apartments in his building unconstitutionally strip him of his property rights.
Two lower courts shot down his arguments. But he pressed his appeal to Washington and — much to the surprise of state and city housing officials — the high court demanded briefs on whether it should hear the case.
Those papers are now in, and they make clear that Harmon is raising fundamental issues that must be fully aired and definitely resolved.
The court should take the case and answer his simple but compelling question:
How would average Americans feel if they were in his shoes?After inheriting the five-story upper West Side brownstone from his parents in 1994, Harmon found himself tangled in the absurdities of the city’s housing market.
Rent stabilization’s elaborate protections mean he and his wife must share the building where they live with tenants they did not necessarily choose.
It further means they must accept rent for those units that’s 59% below market rate for their neighborhood — though the tenants, one of whom owns a house in the Hamptons, could afford more.
Even worse, the tenants have a right to stay as long as they like — even transfer leases to a family member or friend who moves in for three years.
Which further means the Harmons will have to go on renting at a deep discount for the indefinite future. As will, in all likelihood, their heirs.
The Harmons even tried to clear one of the regulated units for a grandchild to use, but that bid was shot down in court.
In his lawsuit, Harmon points out that the legal justification for this interference is an “emergency” housing shortage that’s been going on continuously since World War II.
He notes that plenty of well-off people are enjoying cut-rate regulated apartments while lower-income families pay full freight.
He quotes top economists who say rent regulation does more harm than good when it comes to making housing affordable.
In a final plea for the Supremes’ attention, Harmon’s brief quoted what Justice Thomas Alito recently said during oral arguments on an unrelated case:
“Don’t you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can’t happen in the United States?”
The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case in mid-April. The justices must give Harmon his day in court.