Of course, this is not unique to downstate New York. The decline of the GOP in dense urban areas can be seen throughout the country, in blue states and red, as Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford University, observes in his important new book, Why Cities Lose. But it has been especially pronounced in the New York City region.
For several years, a small band of New York’s moderate Democratic state senators, the Independent Democratic Conference, formed a pivotal bloc that caucused with Republicans in the upper house of the New York State legislature to form a narrow majority. They did so in part out of an opportunistic desire to hold the reins of power, but also out of a sense that they needed to temper the ideological enthusiasm of New York’s activist left.
As long as this coalition of Republicans and rogue Democrats held the state Senate, left-of-center Democrats in the state assembly couldn’t get their way on taxes, charter schools, and rent regulation, among other issues. But in 2018 six of the moderate Democratic state senators who had previously aligned themselves with Republicans lost their seats to self-described progressives who campaigned on legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, single-payer health insurance, and extending new protections to unauthorized immigrants. In short, the sensibilities of the urban activist left triumphed over those of the suburban center.
Armed with majorities in both houses of the state legislature, Democrats have begun clearing the backlog on the progressive wish list, including the most stringent rent-control law since New York City was flooded with GIs returning from the Second World War. The law’s main thrusts are twofold: It forecloses the path to market prices and greatly reduces landlords’ incentives to maintain their buildings and units.
After a series of reforms passed under former Governor George Pataki, the number of rent-regulated units in New York City fell as property owners were given greater freedom to raise rents, old tenants were replaced by new ones (vacancy allowances), and monthly rents passed the state’s vacancy-decontrol threshold (which was set at $2,000 in 1993 and then raised to $2,733 in 2015), after which a unit was eligible to be rented at market rates once its current tenants moved out. Additionally, though yearly rent hikes in stabilized apartments are set by the Rent Guidelines Board, owners were previously allowed to tack on additional rent increases of up to 6 percent if they invested in the building or the unit.
New York’s progressive lawmakers thought this provision was too often used as a cover for excessive rent hikes, and so they’ve tightly constrained the extent to which landlords can recoup capital investments through higher rents. One likely consequence is that New York’s landlords will grow less inclined to invest in maintaining or improving rental housing. As for those who’ve made large investments in rent-stabilized housing in recent years in the expectation that they’d eventually be able to charge market-rate rents for their most valuable units, well, they’re about to see their investments crash in value, which in turn will discourage other investors from pouring their money into rental housing. The legislature could have taken steps to address this problem—for one, it could have paired new rent regulations with measures that would make it more attractive to invest in new market-rate rental housing in New York, which is in desperately short supply. But it did not.