Too bad it’s not online, but it’s well worth the $3.99: Nora Ephron’s mega-sob in this week’s New Yorker about the the day in the 1990s that the New York legislature got rid of rent control on luxury apartments and she was forced to pay–boo hoo!–market-rate rent for the five-bedroom apartment with a fireplace in the historic Apthorp building on the Upper West Side that she’d been leasing at a starting rate of $1,500 a month (the rent did gradually creep up to maybe $3,000 a month–but remember, we’re talking about New York).
Are you weeping yet? Ephron is the one who directed and wrote the screenplays for “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and a host of other hit movies and/or Meg Ryan vehicles. How poor do you think Nora Ephron is? Very poor indeed, according to her. She writes:
“The state legislature passed a luxury-decontrol law stating that any tenant whose rent was more than two thousand dollars a month and who earned more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year would automatically be removed from rent stabilization. I was stunned…..It was totally unfair! It was completely unjust! It was wrong! It was practically unconstitutional!”
I knew it–the tears are flowing now. What’s more, the owners of the Apthorp, like any rational property owners who, after having been deprived for decades of ability to realize any value from their own private property, suddenly began to invest for the first time in decades in improvements in the building, once a magnet dwelling for Haut Bohemia because it was so shabby-chic (Ephron’s neighbors included Al Pacino and Rosie O’Donnell). And guess what–these improvements were Not in the Best of Taste. Gold-painted elevators–tacky! A statue of a naked lady in the foyer–even tackier!
And the new manager they hired, Miss Ross: “a small, frightening woman with pale-white skin, bright-red lips, and a huge, jet-black beehive of hair on top of her head…She wore pink silk shantung suits with gigantic shoulderpads. She lurked everywhere.” Horrors!
But the worst came when the dreaded Miss Shoulderpads phoned to tell Ephron that she was going to have to start paying $10,000 a month for her unit. In a huff, Ephron and her husband, screenwriter Nick Pileggi, handed in their notice and bought an apartment on the even fancier Upper East Side. (Dontcha wonder how much the impoverished Pileggis paid for that?)
I don’t know what the moral of this is supposed to be. For decades, celebrities like Ephron, Pacino, and Mia Farrow paid next to nothing in rent for enormous Manhattan apartments that made them feel like virtuous members of the non-homeowing proletariat all the way to the bank. That wasn’t to say that no one made a profit off these rental arrangements. Anyone who’s taken Economics 101 can tell you that a five-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side with a $1,500 or even $3,000 rent cap is worth a fortune. Not to the owner, who is prevented by socialistic rent-control arrangements from seeing any of this money, despite the fact that it’s his property. The cash value instead goes to the previous tenant, or a sublessor, or a finder or anyone else who can get that apartment into your hands. You give that person what is known as “key money”–and it can be plenty: $25,000 for Nora Ephron when she moved into the Apthorp in 1980, $250,000 for another tenant who moved in a few years later. So being a tenant in a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment pays off in two ways: in your savings on rent and when you move out and someone else wants desperately to move in.
So–how sorry are you for Nora Ephron, Rose O’Donnell, and their ilk? The true heroes of this story, in my opinion, are the now-elderly owners of the Apthorp, who held onto their building and waited patiently decade after decade until New York lawmakers and the New York public realized what an unjust arrangement for property owners rent control is and decided to stop handing sweet deals to well-compensated screenwriters and actors who wanted to feel virtuous, intellectual, and shabby-chic.