What Is a Rent-Controlled Apartment, Anyway?

Photo by Mary Hautman

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    A rent-controlled apartment is, to some, the holy grail of the New York City rental market. Not only are such units usually very good deals, they are also pretty much unattainable.

    How rent control works is also commonly misunderstood, one of many confusing and complex rent regulation programs. So, what is rent control, who are the lucky few living in these apartments, and does the program have a future?

    rent controlled

    Photo by Evan Daniels

    A quick definition

    Rent control is one type of rent regulation in New York City, the other being rent stabilization. Of the two, rent control has more tenant protections. The program began in 1943.

    The allowable rent increases for rent controlled units are set by a state agency, the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

    Tenants of rent-controlled units are entitled to eviction protections, as they are considered “statutory” tenants and may continue living in their units indefinitely, even if landlords do not offer renewal leases.

    rent controlled apartments

    Photo by Fleur Losfeld

    Who qualifies for one?

    Rent-controlled units exist in private residential buildings typically constructed no later than February 1947 in “municipalities that have not declared an end to the postwar rental housing emergency,” according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. What this means is, if New York City’s vacancy rate should rise to approximately five percent, the municipality is obligated to declare an end to the postwar rental housing emergency and end rent regulation.

    A further specification of rent-controlled units is that tenants of qualifying units must have continuously occupied the apartment since before July 1, 1971.

    Once the tenant leaves or dies, the only way for the unit to retain its rent-controlled status is if a family member has been living in the unit with the previous tenant for a minimum of two years (in some cases, one). Otherwise, a unit in a building with six or more apartments typically becomes rent stabilized. A unit in a building with fewer than six apartments becomes deregulated.

    rent controlled apartments

    Photo by Evan Daniels

    Does the program have a future?

    When state rent control was originally imposed in 1950, following nearly a decade of the program being run on a federal level, there were roughly 2.5 million rent-controlled units statewide, 85 percent of them being in New York City, according to TenantNet’s History of Rent Regulation.

    Today, a mere 27,000 rent-controlled apartments remain in New York City, according to HPD. Since there is currently no way for a deregulated unit to become rent controlled, and the stock is maintained only as longtime tenants survive or have a family member interested in succeeding them, it is likely the stock will gradually diminish over the coming years.

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