Story of the TikTok poster and a rent-controlled apartment

A young woman from New York City created a media stir last year, when she posted shots of her scrumptious apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan (where all the famous people live). She gave an on-line audience a peek into the dreamy lifestyle of making fresh again an old-world charm unit in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. It’s no surprise that a school of media swimmers followed her. This story line has already proven successful in the sitcom Friends which aired for ten seasons.

Just like Monica (Courtney Cox) on Friends, the special ed teacher inherited her rent-controlled apartment. It is her childhood home, and the rules allow for a transference of benefit from parent to child. Unlike on TV there are monthly fees associated with the utilities and maintenance of the unit. Given the age of the building, I can guarantee you that $1300/mo rent does not cover the normal combination of heat, electric, water/sewer, common area updates, exterior maintenance which is usually collected through condo fees. For comparison, here’s a listing for a condo built in 1981 and the condo fees run $1424/mo.

Whereas this story has captured the imagination of many who would love to swap living situations with the young New Yorker, others may wonder how this came to be. I can’t supply the context for the imposition of rent control a number of decades ago, but I think today’s housing advocates might see the inefficiency of one individual receiving such a significant benefit. Nor do I think voters today (knowingly) would divert money from the flow of funds through the housing market in a way which would allow this scenario to develop downstream.

Therein lies the danger of using laws to replace economics. Laws are static whereas economic systems are dynamic.

Say a group of people, whether a rural town. or a suburb or a big city have a certain capacity to provide resources for the housing of some community members. We do this naturally of course, when we house our children or perhaps an elderly relative. An example of a dynamic change is how the norms have varied on when children are launched into the real world. Whereas boomers mostly left home at eighteen, millennials stayed on avoiding homeownership and household formation. (Joint Studies for Housing Study- Harvard)

But over and above family ties, the community pays part (or all) of the rent for those who cannot care or themselves. Funds can be funneled through non-profits like Caring and Sharing hands which operates entirely on private donations. At a city level there is an authority to use tax increment financing (TIF), usually in conjunction with monies from the state level. At the federal level the section 8 voucher plan is the largest component of HUD’s budget. These bureaucratic mechanisms are slow and unresponsive to demand.

The disjointedness of subsidy providers is even less able to match individuals and families with the community infrastructures which not only support them but also allow them to participate in a productive manner. Ideally it is through increased involvement in mainstream activities which allow move people back into self-sufficiency, and eventually homeownership.

It’s important to note in the TikTok story that the parents never became homeowners. They never increased their wealth through property ownership. Most probably because there were too many incentives in place to retain their apartment. And the same is true for their daughter. Not only is the TikTok’er afforded a place to live, but she is also monetizing her lifestyle through social media. From what I hear, YouTubers can earn quite a bit when their videos are viewed in the 100’s of thousands. And why shouldn’t she make such extractions? She is simply complying with the incentives set up by the rent-control agreements of years gone by.