Okay, so talk about a juxtaposition! I first noticed this “house” years ago when I stepped out of the Subway Inn just up the block, a little boozy maybe, and had to rub my eyes a couple times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Back then, if my boozy memory serves me correctly, the house wasn’t designed to blend in quite as easily as it does today. So yeah, if I was excited by the 6 story building surrounded by (what’s now) the Renaissance Hotel on 57th Street, imagine how I felt about this. It’s an 1865 townhouse that was somehow spared the wrecking ball when the 31 story 750 Lexington Avenue (also known as International Plaza) went up in 1987. A number of similar townhouses were demolished to make way for the construction – so how the hell did this one survive?
The answer is one Jean Herman and her 4th-floor walk-up rent controlled apartment she’d lived in for more than 30 years. By 1981 Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation (CBRC) had purchased all the lots that make up the Lexington Avenue block front between 59th and 60th Street and they put plans in actions to build a large office building. Part of those plans involved buying out the current tenants of the 3 CBRC-owned brownstones that would need to come down. Jean Herman said no, everybody else eventually said yes and moved out and by April 1984 Jean Herman was the only tenant left. The offers for her to move out got larger and larger, topping out at $650,000; she still said no. CBRC said screw it, we’ll just build the skyscraper around her. And so they did: the original mansard roof and the entire 5th floor of 134 E. 60th St. were removed, as well as the (now) unoccupied rear portion of the building. In the process CBRC also decide to restore the brownstones 1865 facade, which was pretty cool of them. The whole damn thing is pretty cool actually, although today no one seemingly lives in it at all (Jean Herman died in the early 90s), and the whole building is essentially an ad for Levi’s. That is not so cool.
Now sure, I can see some people being angry that this woman who didn’t even own the building was able to put the kibosh on plans for it to be demolished. I mean, how dare she! She can buy her own damn building and then decide not to tear it down if she wants to. Plus, she was offered a lot of money, you know? (As a matter of fact, her apartment was apparently only 26 by 20 feet, making the $650,000 offer equivalent to $1,250 per square foot.) But it’s pretty refreshing to see a case where essentially housing was regarded as a right – where by dint of living somewhere for as long as she did Jean Herman was allowed to dictate herself whether she stayed or went. New York City actually has some very strong tenant protection laws in that regard – with what are considered the strongest rent control laws in the country, as I’m sure any landlord would gladly tell you. Though to be fair, there are some serious catches: to qualify for rent control a tenant has to have continuously lived in the apartment since July 1, 1971 (I bet people who moved in July 2 are pretty pissed), and that’s generally just for buildings with 6 units or more (and built before 1947). If you’re talking about single or two-family homes the tenant has to have lived there continuously since March 31, 1953. As you might imagine that makes rent controlled apartments hard to come by; less 2% of NYC apartments are rent controlled today.
When most people talk about a rent controlled apartment in New York what they actually mean is rent stabilized. Rent stabilized apartments make up something like 45% of the housing stock in the city, and the protections for them are pretty strong as well. Generally speaking any building with 6 or more units, built before 1974, with an apartment renting below $2,500 ($2,000 before 2011) should be rent stabilized. I say should because there’s always the chance a landlord might illegally present a rent stabilized apartment as market rate (ie. he/she (though probably he right?) might jack up the price) though I don’t think that happens too often. Otherwise rent stabilized apartments can only be raised by a certain percentage each year – a percentage determined by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board – and just like rent control the chance for lease renewal has to be offered to the existing tenant. Once the rent has legally been brought up to $2,500 the apartment can be deregulated and charged at market rates. The same holds true if the landlord makes substantial improvements to an apartment once it’s been vacated, or if the tenant’s annual income is $200,000 or more.
As you might imagine, and as I’m sure Jean Herman brought to light, there’s a lot of mixed feelings about rent control and stabilization. The criticism that strikes me as strongest (since it still essentially agrees with the idea of rent control) is that we should be stabilizing people, not units. If you live in a rent stabilized place you don’t want to leave it, even if it eventually becomes unsuitable for your needs. And the fact that you don’t leave it means there’s little turnover in the rental market, making those non-rent stabilized apartments that are available that much more expensive. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we just subsidized people’s rents instead according to their needs? But that would be too close to treating housing like a right, right? We don’t really go for that kind of thing in this country. It might lead to too many Jean Hermans.