Live Rent-Free For Life by Scott Gardner

by | Feb 2, 2002 | Books

Scott Gardner made the mistake of becoming a landlord in New York City without realizing the inhuman treatment he would receive by the rent control bureaucracy.

Scott Gardner made the mistake of becoming a landlord in New York City without realizing the inhuman treatment he would receive by the rent control bureaucracy. After ten years of abuse, he learned his lesson, got out, and now has written that rarest of things: a funny, yet tragic, book about rent control. That Gardner has maintained a combative sense of humor, despite losing his bank account, is a testament to his tenacity, if not to his foresight.

Gardner’s book is not a comprehensive economic treatise. Rather, it is a first- hand report about the perverse universe of rent control—a universe toward which hrs responses range from humorous to sarcastic to critical. But throughout the book, Gardner is guided by the theme that rent controls are a naked violation of property rights, carried out by physical force. He argues that “stripped to its bare essentials, rent control boils down to the simple premise that it is perfectly acceptable to take people’s property away from them at the point of a gun, as long as it is done for a worthy cause.’ The problem with this is the one who gets to decide what cause is worthy is the guy with the gun.” When Gardner became a landlord in 1980, he anticipated little trouble, inasmuch as he had chosen a good area in Manhattan, and his tenants were largely professional, working-class individuals. But he soon discovered that rent control brings out the very worst in people. He recounts that “when it came to dealing with landlords, these fine, upright citizens assumed the ethics of a Pakistani pickpocket.

In a shocking display of deviousness and chicanery, my tenants blithely attempted to get away with a mind-boggling assortment of rent avoidance scams, lease violations, tenancy frauds, willful perjury… .” If there was anything more amazing to Gardner than this hoodlum-like behavior, it was the fact that the entire rent control system condones and encourages it.

According to Gardner, there is a “neolithic bureaucracy with a built-in bias against landlords. . . buffoon politicians eagerly willing to subvert the Constitution for votes . . . a mayoral administration pathetically unable to cure the housing shortage, all the while making it more critical every day … rabble-rousing tenant activists with their own private agenda dedicated to the destruction of all property … screaming newspaper headlines denouncing the ten worst landlords…”

These are the massive forces united against every landlord who tries to wring an honest dollar out of his building.

Gardner explains that not only are the landlord’s property rights violated under rent control, but they are actually transferred to the tenant. The courts have ruled that tenants have property rights to their apartments. Often this means that landlords must bribe tenants to leave. Alternatively, landlords simply let the property deteriorate, or they become unresponsive, or even abusive, in order to make tenants leave (at which point the law allows the rent to be raised to the next controlled level).

How can one live rent-free in New York? Gardner describes, for example, an illegal sublet: “If you’re paying $400 a month for a $1,200 apartment, you’re sitting Since the law prevents the landlord from collecting it, why let on a gold mine all the excess go to waste? Recapture some of this unrealized capital appreciation by taking in a roommate who will be glad to pay you a fair market rent of $600. That lets you live rent-free and gives you an extra $200 a month to boot.” Furthermore, Gardner says, “New York is so pro-tenant, you can lie, cheat and defraud your landlord to your heart’s content; even violate the rent laws themselves, without the slightest fear of punishment or penalty of any kind.” Gardner found that the rent control laws guarantee an adversarial relationship between him and his customers, a relationship absent from other market transactions. New York has a backlog of 90,000 unresolved disputes between landlords and tenants, representing almost 10 percent of the 1.1 million apartments under state control. Not surprisingly, in almost every case, decisions favor the tenants.

So people “live rent-free” because the law has canceled their obligation to pay for what they are getting. Gardner sums up the irony of rent control laws in America: “At a time in our history when harsh economic reality has made Marxist dogma harder to peddle than radioactive waste, and with economic controls all over Europe and Asia being dismantled faster than an abandoned wreck on the East River Drive, New York’s precious rent control may very well be the last surviving example of socialistic claptrap left in the civilized world.” Although there are far more numerous examples of socialist claptrap in this country than Gardner realizes, his point, and his book, are right on the mark.

This review is made available by the Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books)

The Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books) is your source for books and lectures for those interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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