Peter Salins
The Regulation That Wasn't
Autumn 1994

Six years ago, the New York City Council came within one vote of enacting commercial rent control. Proponents, led by Councilwoman Ruth Messinger (now Manhattan borough president), pointed with alarm to the boutiques and restaurants sweeping up Columbus Avenue and other recently gentrified districts and claimed that the survival of New York's comer cobblers and neighborhood dry cleaners depended on holding down their rents.

Ironically, commercial rent control's near-adoption coincided almost precisely with the onset of New York's severe recession, which emptied the city's retail corridors of many yuppie emporiums and drove commercial rents down. Today, with sky-high commercial vacancy rates and rock-bottom rents, commercial rent control is a forgotten cause.

The lesson: the conditions that prompt new laws are often transitory, while the potential harms may be permanent. To paraphrase William Congreve on marriage: having legislated in haste, we may repent at leisure. If only New York's lawmakers had waited a year or two longer after World War II before deciding
whether to adopt residential rent control.

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