‘Ruined’ by rent control
Landlords may lose home
By ANNIE KARNI
Posted:2:37 AM, May 6, 2012
The lawsuit that almost overturned the city’s rent-control laws only succeeded in upending the lives of the Upper West Side couple who brought the case.
After the Supreme Court refused to hear New York’s highest-profile lawsuit challenging rent control, landlords James and Jeanne Harmon said they may have to sell the five-story town house at the center of the battle — a brownstone their family has called home for three generations.
The case has been costly. The couple had to put off retirement, they cannot provide homes for their grandchildren and they are treated like pariahs by some neighbors on West 76th Street.
“We feel total uncertainty about the future at age 69,” James Harmon, a Vietnam veteran and former federal prosecutor, told The Post. “This was devastating to our family because the house is part of our family. This is the place I grew up, and this is the place my mother died. We should be able to keep this house, but we don’t know if we can continue to do that.”
Harmon argued the city’s 43-year-old rent-regulation laws violated the Fifth Amendment, which protects private property from seizure for public use without “just compensation.” Harmon claimed the rent law denies him that compensation, forcing him to bankroll the lifestyles and second homes of his tenants.
The Harmons occupy an elegant one-bedroom apartment on the building’s parlor floor. They rent six one-bedroom units: three at market value and three at rent-stabilized rates 59 percent below market.
The Harmons moved into the building in 2005, after they took out a $1.5 million mortgage to buy Harmon’s brother’s share of the building they inherited.
On top of the 30-year mortgage payments, the Harmons fork over $58,300 a year in property taxes and about $3,000 for water, according to documents. The three rent-regulated tenants — one of whom, Nancy Wing Lombardi, owns a Southampton summer house — pay about $1,000 a month.
All of which leaves the Harmons cash poor, they claim. “I think we could do OK if we could just get the market rent for those apartments,” said James Harmon.
Most painful for the family is the occupation of 4F, where regulated tenant Cheryl Mervine has lived for decades.
When their granddaughter was sick with a life-threatening disease, the Harmons attempted to “retake” the unit for the family’s use. When their granddaughter relapsed and left the city, they tried to claim the apartment for their grandson, a recent Fordham University grad earning close to minimum wage, but city Housing Court ruled against them, and Mervine declined to budge.
“The moral judgment is this: Am I a self-respecting person that would allow a family to use its own home, or am I the kind of person that’s going to leech off of that family for the rest of my life,” said Harmon bitterly.
Mervine declined to comment.
Harmon said the lawsuit has also created tension with neighbors on the block where he grew up.
One neighbor photographs him as he comes and goes. “It’s a whole different tone now that I started the case,” said Harmon.
“We’ve been battered and we’re on the ropes,” said Harmon. “I want to be right in the middle of this fight, one way or the other.”