Bert Brilliant writes a column for The Daily Planet. Norman Naive is one of the young up-and-comers who sits a few desks away. Every few days, they go have Chinese food and good Dutch beer and figure ways to make the world a perfect place.
"Still living in that dump on the Hill, Norman?"
"(Munch, munch) Yup."
"Still paying two cents a month in rent?"
"(Gulp, swallow) A hundred bucks a month, Bert."
"Well, begging your lordship's pardon. A hundred whole everlovin' bucks a month! Barely into three figures, this boy, when I'm trying to stay out of four. All right, sonny. I'm not even going to ask you what you think of this rent control business."
"What do you think I think, Bert? You think I'm dying to see my rent triple?"
"First of all, you can afford it. Second of all, it'll mean your landlady can paint the place for the first time since the Civil War. And third of all, it's only fair to her. I can't understand how she's made any money off the place all these years as it is."
"I don't know how she has myself. But I'll tell you what: I'm not looking any gift horses in the mouth."
"What a rotten attitude! I guarantee you'll be the first one who screams bloody murder the minute you start paying 1985 rates. What kind of fantasy world do you inhabit, youngster? I'll bet you think the City Council ought to keep rent controls just the way they are. As if a bunch of legislators should just close their eyes, clap their hands and declare that, because you own an apartment house, you don't have the right to make a living."
"How can you shed any tears for landlords, man? You ever call one of them and try to get a broken window fixed? You ever wait three months to have them give you your hot water back? I'm telling you, I'd rather argue with the city desk for a Saturday night off."
"Norman, if your landlady doesn't fix the window, you can call the District Building and get an inspector out there to make sure she does it. She takes all the business risk, she deals with all the problems, and you're the one with the muscle if something goes wrong. Now how in the world is that fair to her?"
"Okay, genius. Let's say we remove rent control. You know what would happen to this town? Every poor person living in an apartment would be evicted just like that so that the landlord could rent to nothing but yuppies. You think a lot of people live in homeless shelters now? Just wait."
"I think you'd better send your crystal ball in for a 15,000-mile check, Junior. What would happen is that rents would go up some, but not by leaps and bounds, or anything close. If any landlord suddenly triples the rents in his building, he's going to find out what every kid who ever took Economics 101 already knows: that you can only charge what the market will bear."
"Here's what they teach you in Economics 102, Grandpa: the rich get richer. And here's how they'll do it in this case. The day rent controls die, every landlord in town is going to realize that his building is suddenly worth a whole lot more. But why should he be the one to go through all the aggravation with the tenants? Why should he have to listen to all the sobbing and grumbling about how they can't afford the new rents? He'll just sell his building, and let somebody else have the headaches. That way, he gets rich, and he gets out, all at the same time."
"There are only two things wrong with that scenario, Norman. First, a lot of people who own apartment houses in Washington bought them a long time ago. If they sell them, their profits will be tremendous, but so will their capital gains taxes. Uncle Sam would get 95 percent of the sales price. That means there'd be very few sell-and-run jobs. And second, what makes you think a guy would be able to find a buyer so easily? Anybody who has the guts to wade into commercial real estate in D.C. is probably already in it. Besides, if you keep rent controls, you're going to have even more abandoned buildings than you do now. And that, sir, is one heck of a lot."
"So what are you saying, Bert? That the City Council should just let landlords charge whatever they like? That's not exactly fair, either, is it?
"Of course not. And I'm not saying we should do away with protection for people who need it. Write a grandfather clause for the elderly and for the people who really are too poor to handle an increase. But don't let young middle-class guys like you keep an unfair advantage just because you were lucky enough to have rented a place when rents were low. Anybody like you who earns a decent salary ought to pay his fair share. It's like coming to this glorious restaurant. Do you think you should pay less for an egg roll just because you've been sitting in the same booth for a long time? You should pay the fair price that the owner sets."
Just then, the fortune cookies arrived.
"Next Thursday?" asked Bert.
"Next Thursday," said Norman.
And they shuffled back to the office.