Who knows what evil lurks in the soul of a New York tenant? Nora Ephron knows — sort of.
She has broken the code of silence of Manhattan's most exclusive aristocracy. She became the crème de la crème of the city's rent-regulated tenants by bribing her way into an eight-room apartment for $1,500 a month at the Apthorp, the palatial building at Broadway and West 79th Street.
Her expulsion from rent-control paradise, told in the current New Yorker, isn't exactly a heartbreaking story. But it gives a rare inside look at the rentocracy, the system allowing affluent New Yorkers to pay below-market rents and pass along the apartments to their children.
Ephron is a smart, funny writer who now acknowledges the injustice of the system. But during her days in the Apthorp she was indignant when a new law stripped away her rent protection because her household income was more than $250,000 per year. She couldn't imagine anyone would dare charge her what the apartment became worth: $10,000 per month.
"I was a character in a story about mass delusion and the madness of crowds," she writes. "I was, in short, completely nuts."
She was also, in short, utterly typical of her class. I can't claim to have reached her social heights, but I did live in regulated apartments for 17 years, and I'm still amazed at the self-delusion that prevailed.
I spent long dinners hearing rentocrats earnestly explain that while the free market may work for the rest of apartments in America, rents must be regulated in Manhattan because it is an island with a limited supply of housing. (If an out-of-towner suggested to these Manhattan theorists that the rent they charged for their vacation homes in Nantucket should also be regulated, they would explain that Nantucket is a different kind of island.)
In her article, Ephron complains that the law deregulating her apartment allowed landlords to be "utterly capricious" in charging her "fair-market value" for her eight rooms.
This sounds odd coming from a Hollywood director — was Ephron any less capricious in charging whatever she could get for "Sleepless in Seattle"? — but it's the rentocrat, not the director, talking here.
Like European nobles in crumbling castles, rentocrats are above money grubbing. They deserve their homes because of their longevity and their virtues. They compare rent control to Fulbright scholarships — a stipend wisely provided to worthy intellectuals and artists. They will announce, with a straight face, that they're entitled to keep their apartments because of the extensive "emotional investment" they have made in the buildings.
They scorn tacky landlords obsessed with getting higher rents so they can pay for nonemotional investments like furnaces. Ephron writes witheringly about the beehive hairdo and pink silk suits of the building manager, a "frightening" woman — and a resident of New Jersey. The Apthorp tenants were appalled at the landlords' efforts to renovate the property — how bourgeois! — so they could get permission to charge higher rents.
The Apthorp tenants did consent to some profiteering of their own by charging illicit "key money," like the $24,000 that Ephron paid to the previous tenant in order to get her apartment. But what was acceptable for tenants became a "crime," as Ephron tells it, when one of the landlords started taking a cut of the action. Why should he get anything? It's only his building.
Now that she's left the Apthorp and become the happy owner of her own apartment, Ephron ascribes her former madness to being so deliriously in love with her old home that she couldn't imagine leaving it. But I can't buy the love diagnosis. As a recovering rentocrat, I think our madness has more to do with guilt.
No matter how much you love your rent-stabilized apartment, no matter how smug you feel bragging to your friends about your deal, in your heart you know it's not fair you're paying so little. It's like buying stolen goods: you can revel in the low price, but you know it comes at someone else's expense.
And you know exactly who that someone is. You're living on his property. You're a squatter, but you don't want to admit it. So you tell yourself it's not really his property anyway, and you're more worthy of it than he is, and you couldn't survive anywhere else, and anyway this is all about something far more profound than money. But it's not.