Rangel’s Wrangle with Rent Control

Charlie Rangel, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been seen in recent months manicured and pressed, stumping for Hillary Clinton, and most recently, for Barack Obama. This whole time I’ve been wondering: This guy’s 78 years old! How does he look so polished and spend so much time between his Harlem district, D.C., and on the campaign trail for his fellow Democrats?

Rest! And lots of it! He’s got any number of abodes to lay his head. The New York Times reported late yesterday on its Web site that the veteran congressman — part of Harlem’s political elite — has four rent-stabilized apartments in an exclusive Harlem address at a time when landlords are using aggressive measures to evict tenants living in rent-stabilized units.

The Times goes on to report that, in 2007, Mr. Rangel paid a total rent of $3,894 monthly for the four apartments at the 1,700-unit luxurious Lenox Terrace, when the market rate for those same units, according to the developer, the Olnick Organization, would fetch $7,465 to $8,125.

Rangel reportedly uses one of the units as a campaign office, even though state and city regulations require that rent-stabilized residences are primarily for residential use.

For all you young journalists out there, that sounds like the lede, right? WRONG! as John McLaughlin would say.

In today’s sensationalistic society, the lede is that Rangel, with an estimated worth of $566,000 to $1.2 million and his four rent-stabilized apartments, is getting apartments on the cheap. Ethically wrong? Yes. Illegal? Probably not — though the jury’s still out on the campaign office.

So, continuing the McLaughlin-isms, on a scale of zero to 10, with zero representing zero possibility and 10 representing complete metaphysical certitude, is this just another boneheaded PR fiasco for a powerful politician? I think we can agree on metaphysical certitude.

Also, it stinks of abuse of the system. Certainly, the purpose of rent regulation was not for the Charlie Rangels of the world to be able to live off the system like this.

Not only is Olnick known in the city for its aggressive eviction tactics, but concerns of rising property values amid a gentrifying Harlem are rippling through the neighborhood.

Tensions are especially inflamed in Harlem, where the rising cost of living and the arrival of more moneyed residents have triggered anxiety over the future of the historically black neighborhood. And Vantage Properties, a company established by Olnick’s former chief operating officer, has attracted billions in private equity financing by promising investors that it can aggressively convert tens of thousands of rent-stabilized apartments, many in Harlem.

Interesting. So why is Olnick not breathing down Rangel’s neck about his low-rent properties? Here’s a silent answer that speaks volumes:

Yet Mr. Rangel, a critic of other landlords’ callousness, has been uncharacteristically reticent about Olnick’s actions.

Sigh.

Lenox Terrace also houses other political luminaries like New York State Gov. David Paterson, his father, and Percy E. Sutton, the formal Manhattan Borough president. The Patersons, according to The Times, are living there for below market rate. The report also links campaign contributions from Sylvia Olnick, of the developer the Olnick Organization, to Rangel’s 2006 campaign and two other contributions to the congressman’s PAC.

But what of this?

Mr. Rangel’s residence, which has custom moldings and dramatic archways, is decorated with Benin Bronze statues and antique carved walnut Italian chairs, and was featured in the 2003 book “Style and Grace: African Americans at Home,” by Michael Henry Adams (Bulfinch Press). The article called the home a penthouse, although it is on the second floor from the top.

The book does not mention that the units are rent-stabilized, but says that the penthouse had been assembled by combining separate apartments. Mr. Rangel’s wife, Alma, is quoted describing the congressman as “the shopper in this family” who has a penchant for hunting down antiques like cut-glass champagne flutes and walnut chests to furnish their elegant abode.

After waving off the press, Rangel finally held a news conference Friday afternoon to explain that he “didn’t see anything unfair about” his living situation and that if there is any wrongdoing in using one unit as a campaign office, that his office would look into it. As far as the rent control, Rangel asserted that he was paying the “maximum legal rent” for his place.

In the New York market, the Rangel story was above the fold, right there alongside a report on a potential federal takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac amid billion dollar losses in the ongoing mortgage crisis. Housing, it turns out, is the issue of the day.

And while one story is certainly more important that the other, and while The New York Times Rangel story does not have that knock-out blow and is somewhat sensational, just like the story that alleged friendship (or whatever it was) between John McCain and lobbyist Vicky Iseman, the Rangel matter stinks. It stinks because there are so many people clamoring for affordable housing — particularly in neighborhoods that have personal historic connections for individuals who can no longer afford to live there.

It stinks because Rangel, respected among his constituency, should have known better. Unfortunately, those kinds of ethics are not yet mandated.

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