Hating landlords

Posted: Jul 26, 2000 12:00 AM
The thing I like about Ronnie Fatato is, he doesn't fake it. "This isn't Russia!" he barks to The New York Times reporter who is investigating his latest rent hikes in the 12 unregulated apartments he owns. He's not saying he's a saint; he doesn't let anybody call him a louse, either. In my book, that makes him almost a hero.

In Park Slope, where I used to live, there are a lot of people who've been dabbling with moral superiority by conducting a campaign of hate against Ronnie, whose grandfather Luigi settled in Park Slope in 1912, or about 80 years before most of his critics started gentrifying this neighborhood with their presence.

Seems rents are skyrocketing in Park Slope, like a lot of other places in America. Ronnie warned his tenants, months in advance, that when the lease was up he was going to raise their rent 30 percent or more. To make it easier, he paid moving expenses and waived back rent. Ronnie isn't one of those brutal landlords New York City produces so many of, who try to harass people out. Everyone agrees he's been a decent landlord.

But when Ronnie Fatato refused to let one single mother stay at last year's rent, she turned to the Fifth Avenue Committee, which had recently declared 36 blocks of lower Park Slope a "displacement-free zone." They got her a lawyer -- no use, because the eviction was legal. They got a priest to intervene -- Ronnie didn't appreciate the guilt trip. So then they did something smarmy and unconscionable: They conducted a deliberate campaign of hate against Ronnie Fatato. Volunteers handed out nasty fliers with slogans such as "Don't let Ronald Fatato grind our neighborhood into meat patties."

Brad Lander, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, sums up his group's message like this: "Don't be greedy. Honor our racial and economic diversity along with your bank account."

Of course, the real message of these self-righteous yuppies is: Let them use your bank account, but keep away from ours. If helping one single mother keep her apartment was the point, why didn't the Fifth Avenue Committee ask for donations to help her pay the rent increase? If housing space is at a premium, why don't they each agree to rent a room or two out of the spacious Victorian brownstones they inhabit to help a poor Hispanic single mother?

Why don't they organize to ask city hall for a tax increase to pay for bigger housing vouchers? Why is it fair or tolerant or liberal to expect a working stiff like Ronnie Fatato to turn himself into a one-man social service agency for poor single mothers, while expecting no similar financial sacrifice of ourselves?

Even better, why not take a hard look at the real roots of the rental crisis in New York: the unwillingness of middle-class New Yorkers to give up the handout called rent control, which distributes huge rent bonuses to anyone astute or lucky enough to live in a particular apartment. Experts predict the next census will show that 40 percent of New Yorkers were born abroad, a proportion not seen since the '20s. "Absent immigration, we would be seeing a very different New York, with neighborhood abandonment and depopulation," Dr. Philip Kasinitz, a sociology professor at Hunter College, told the Times. But in the '20s, the city added 600,000 new dwellings to accommodate all these newcomers.

Why not now? Because businessmen are not stupid enough to invest millions in new rental housing in a city where people feel morally comfortable demonizing landlords for failing to pay for social services we do not want to subsidize ourselves.

Look into the mirror, Fifth Avenue zealots, if you want to see the real source of housing suffering in New York.