The Stealth War: That Crazy Mother Tucker

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Whatever happens in Albany this summer, there’s one thing for sure. The forces that want to get rid of the city’s rent laws can find their inspiration in one relentless pundit: William Tucker, a New York Post columnist, who since last fall has written at least 13 biting opinion pieces decrying rent regulation–11 of them from November to February alone.

Throughout his thousands of words on the topic, Tucker essentially has one argument against rent laws: They cause all the city’s housing problems–homelessness, high rent burdens and crappy conditions–because rent laws keep developers from building new housing.

“Builders refuse to construct new units that will be immediately regulated,” Tucker wrote in his February 7 column. Over and over again, he repeats this same argument: rent regulations don’t allow private developers to charge high enough rents to pay back their initial investments. So they don’t build at all.

On the face of it, it’s a logical contention. Who would build something if they can’t make money off it? But here’s the rub: it’s a blatant lie.

In every single column he writes, Tucker blames rent laws but never states one simple fact: No apartments built since 1973 have been forced into rent regulation. New units built today are exempt from all rent price controls, unless developers choose to take advantage of government subsidies or tax breaks that reduce their costs.

Tucker obviously knows this little bit of truth. So every now and then, he hedges. In that same February 7 column, he actually acknowledged that rent laws don’t cover new apartments. But he immediately added that despite this, developers still don’t build because of “the ever-present threat that fresh regulations will ‘recapture’ these units.”

That also turns out to be untrue. The last “recapture” of new apartments was in 1974–today’s housing developers probably aren’t quaking in their boots that it’s about to happen again anytime soon. And the state legislature in 1997 forbade itself from doing just what Tucker claims today’s developers fear. Section 27 of the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 says: “…new housing shall remain exempt from rent control, rent stabilization and any other form of rent regulation for a term of 50 years.”

It should be noted Tucker has some good observations. There’s not nearly as much new housing construction here as there should be. A lack of construction does in fact help drive everything from homelessness to high rents. And builders are hesitant to build because it’s difficult to turn a profit. But that is simply because it costs too much to build. As Michael Schill, the director of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University, and others argue in their landmark 1999 study “Reducing the Cost of New Housing Construction in New York City,” it’s about 25 percent more expensive to build apartments here than in other large American cities. The high cost of land and construction labor are the two biggest factors, followed by a cumbersome permit and approval process that wastes both time and money. Rent regulation, Schill and his co-authors conclude, has at most “a relatively modest impact on new construction.”

Tucker doesn’t let careful conclusions like this get in the way of his harangues against rent laws. When he feels the need, instead, he comes up with his own crazy math. Tucker relies repeatedly on a series of rental “studies” he did in the 1990s–of apartment listings from newspaper classifieds. In one hilarious instance last April, Tucker wrote about how he plugged the advertised rents from the Sunday papers of 18 cities into a spreadsheet. Upon discovering that New York’s average advertised rent was above $2,000, Tucker wrote: “What I found made my blood run cold.”

Here’s what he found: the two cities with the strongest rent laws, New York City and San Francisco, had by far the highest advertised rents–and had very few apartments listed at lower levels, below $1,000. That proves, Tucker wrote, that rent control doesn’t preserve affordability but actually makes housing more expensive–even for the poor.

It’s a stunning conclusion–in its audacity. Easily accessible, and comprehensive, federal Census data would show that while New York does have high average rents, there are in fact several hundred thousand rent regulated units going for less than $1,000.

And then there are the columns in which Tucker abandons his typically professorial voice, with all the lecturing on how regulations kill free enterprise. In those moments, something beyond free market ideology shines through–an utter lack of familiarity with what’s happening today with low-income people and their neighborhoods, and dare we say it, more than a hint of racism. What he writes is sad, and not true, but dangerous too: “In the poorest neighborhoods, it often becomes a contest of who will burn down the building first–the landlord, trying to collect insurance, or tenants, in order to be moved to the top of the lists for public housing.”