By W. Russell Neuman
$127.61. Yep, for a nifty 1,000-square-foot apartment in an award-winning Federal townhouse on Morton Street. Yes, indeed. That is the current rent, per month, in 2018. West Village heaven.
How is this possible, you ask? The answer, of course, is rent control. Other similar but uncontrolled apartments in the same building reported rents of $5,750 to $7,687. You’re now thinking: How could you wrangle such a deal? There’s gotta be a way, but not so fast. There is a moral to this saga. Be careful what you wish for.
Let’s start with the story of one John Dugdale. He has lived in the Morton Street building since 1985. He’s 58 years old. Dugdale used to work as the building’s super for a former owner (now deceased) whom he considered a close friend. A rumor got started that Dugdale was paying $127.61 per month and battling the new landlord. The next thing you know, a reporter from the New York Post is ringing his doorbell for a story. “I’m not in a battle with the landlord,” he explains, “and I have nothing to say.” Interview over. John later heads out with his dog only to be accosted by the reporter who waited a full three hours to pester him with questions and follow him down the street. The reporter ends up publishing a story, which effectively outs John as some sort of rent pirate. People ring his bell and say very nasty things. They confront him in the street as he walks with his dog. Things are not going well.
Let me explain. The dog is a seeing-eye dog. Dugdale is blind, but there’s much more to the story. He is a photographer. He had a successful career as an art photographer with solo exhibitions at major galleries and as a commercial fashion photographer for the likes of Ralph Lauren. In 1993, at the age of 33, Dugdale experienced nearly total blindness due to a stroke and retinitis, an HIV-related illness. But he decided to continue with photography with the aid of assistants, and has done so with considerable success. Dugdale’s photographs are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney. He works with large-format and 19th century photographic processes to create striking images that reflect another era. In other words, Dugdale is just the sort of creative artist that the West Village is known for. (Visit johndugdalestudio.com.)
But Dugdale’s troubles continue. He has received what appear to be eviction notices. One landlord partially removed the staircase to his unit. (It was replaced.) Ironically, it turns out that an elderly couple in the same building pay $127.61 for their place rather than John. They have lived there since the 1960s and qualify for the rarified phenomenon of rent control, which requires continuous occupancy from July 1, 1971 in a building built before 1947. In the 1950s, about two million New York apartments qualified for rent control. Now, the number is 27,000.
Dugdale’s place is rent stabilized and he pays $659. That is still a good deal, of course. Qualifying, rent-stabilized apartments limit the percentage rent increases, as dictated by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board. There are about 840,000 rent-stabilized apartments in the city. But the days may be numbered for both rent control and rent stabilization as market rental rates skyrocket and the incentives for landlords to try to force out protected tenants increase accordingly.
Dugdale’s building is a beauty. It was the very first townhouse built on Morton Street (in 1828); such units were typically occupied by wealthy merchants. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was home to the Girls’ Endeavor Society, basically a Christian boarding house for young women new to the city and working in factories. For the last century, like many West Village brownstones, it has been divided into apartments, typically one to a floor. In 2009, the building sold for $3.7 million. In 2011, it went for $6.5 million. Now, it is on the market for $11.2 million. That’s the price for a building with two tenanted floors bringing in less than $1,000 per month in rent. The value of the full building, unoccupied would be millions more. This is where the being-careful-for-wishing comes in. Imagine yourself in Dugdale’s position. You are basically standing between a developer and a big profit. There is always the possibility of a buy-out which would benefit Dugdale financially but would probably lead to his moving upstate, another loss to the character of Village life.
Rent control and rent stabilization have their place but they create difficult financial pressures on tenants and landlords. New models to encourage cooperative ownership would be welcome. New buildings with mandated affordable housing components may be a partial solution. Initiatives for arts-oriented communities like Westbeth should be expanded in the Village. There is no easy answer but keeping track of these issues is why we have WestView News.
W. Russell Neuman is a Professor of Media Technology at New York University.