By Al Barbarino
Amid a perpetual rent stabilization debate, one of New York’s leading housing experts is warning that the city’s highly contentious laws are unconstitutional.
Sherwin Belkin, a Manhattan lawyer who represents some of the city’s top landlords, blasted a legal brief that the city issued this week calling the legislation a “legitimate exercise of government police power.”
Instead, Belkin says, the rent laws that were introduced during the Second World War to address a housing emergency may just violate owners’ Fifth Amendment rights.
The verbal volley comes following an appeals courts ruling on Harmon v. Kimmel, a rent stabilization lawsuit that was filed by the owners of a Manhattan brownstone.
The Harmons inherited their five-story brownstone in the Central Park West Historical District along with three rent-controlled tenants in 2005. They filed suit against the city last year when they tried to offer up their digs to family members but the tenants — who according to the lawsuit have occupied the building for a combined 90 years, at a rate 59 percent below market — wouldn’t budge.
The Harmons lawsuit filed with the United States District Court alleged that New York Rent Stabilization Law violated their Fifth Amendment rights against a “physical taking,” an invasion of private property rights through eminent domain without compensation. But the district and appeals courts disagreed, and now the case might be headed to the Supreme Court.
“James and Jeanne Harmon … have put forth a remarkably compelling case,” Belkin said. “In the City of New York’s opposition brief filed today, it attempts to avoid the constitutional issues raised by the Harmons, claiming that these matters of rent control regulation are political or legislative only.”
The city’s legal brief cited several previous Supreme Court rulings, and states that the restrictions imposed by the RSL do not constitute a physical taking, as the Harmons claimed. RSL is a “legitimate exercise of government police power,” the brief states; RSL neither “requires an owner to suffer a permanent physical invasion” of his or her property, nor takes away “all economically beneficial use” of that property.
Belkin stated that rent regulation must be reserved for a “temporary and limited emergency,” citing the due process clause, which, under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, protects against vague laws.
“They offer no answer as to how 70 years of uninterrupted rent regulation is either ‘temporary’ or constitutes an ‘emergency’,” said Belkin. “The City also concedes that a regulation that fails to serve a legitimate governmental objective may run afoul of the Due Process clause. But, again, they offer nothing to explain what must be conceded in order to fix totally ineffectual regulations in order to better serve a legitimate governmental objective.”
A city lawyer who helped prepare the brief denied that the city made such concessions, and the brief states that the due process clause “does not create a special standard” that confines the “police power” of the government to the “remediation of temporary emergencies.”
Critics have backed the Harmons, contending that the law arbitrarily benefits certain individuals, while hurting the city as a whole. But tenants are rarely willing to give up without a fight.
Tenants of the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village complex landed a victory just last week when they reached a settlement with Metlife in a lawsuit over rent regulation.
In 2007, the tenants sued Metlife and a Tishman Speyer investor group, alleging that the companies had illegally deregulated their units. The landlords originally prevailed, but in 2009, the New York State Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the tenants.
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement in principle with the plaintiffs, and we look forward to finalizing the settlement,” said a Metlife spokesperson, who confirmed the settlement for an undisclosed amount.
Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the state legislature to extend the state’s rent laws. They were renewed in June. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Harmons, it could reverse a standing precedent, allowing landlords to use it as fuel when battling tenants in the future.