Charles Urstadt, Who Eased N.Y. Rent Controls, Dies at 91

Charles J. Urstadt, a major influence in New York State housing who helped ease rent controls and laid the groundwork for the construction of Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, died on March 3 at his home in Bronxville, N.Y. He was 91.

The cause was complications of a stroke, his son, Charles D. Urstadt, said.

Mr. Urstadt, whose career in real estate spanned a half-century, also lobbied recalcitrant legislators to create the state’s Urban Development Corporation, an enterprising housing and economic development vehicle established in 1968 under Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. The corporation, a public and private partnership now known as the Empire State Development Corporation, was empowered to override local zoning to build more low-income housing.

As the founding chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, a state agency, Mr. Urstadt helped pave the way for construction of Battery Park City, the housing and office complex that became home to about 15,000 people on 92 acres of landfill in the Hudson River.

Mr. Urstadt was the chairman of the authority from 1968 to 1973 and chief executive from 1973 through 1978, a period in which a visionary master plan was developed.

But much of the project lay largely in limbo then. City and state officials were squabbling over design, affordability of apartments and other details. The mid-1970s fiscal crisis delayed borrowing through the sale of bonds. And the authority was awaiting a federal mortgage guarantee.

The landfill itself was finally completed in 1976. Three years later, after Mr. Urstadt was forced out by the newly elected governor, Hugh L. Carey, only a small number of the project’s proposed buildings had been finished. Mr. Urstadt later attributed the delays to “sabotage” by the Carey administration and City Hall.

He was reappointed to the board in 1996 and served until 2010.

As the Rockefeller administration’s commissioner of housing and community renewal from 1968 through 1973, Mr. Urstadt generally oversaw the development of other major state-sponsored housing projects, including Co-Op City in the Bronx, Rochdale Village in Queens and Starrett City in Brooklyn.

But he was most prominent as the author of legislation that collectively became known as the Urstadt Law, which was passed in 1971 by the Republican-controlled Legislature to the delight of landlords and the scorn of tenants.

By barring localities from imposing stricter regulations than those passed by the Legislature, the law, in effect, empowered the state, not localities, to regulate rents. The shift broadly expanded Albany’s role in housing policy, which is why city officials go hat in hand to Albany every few years for permission to extend controls.

One consequence of the Urstadt Law was largely to allow landlords to lift rent controls on apartments when existing tenants voluntarily vacated them and to charge market rates for new renters.

“If I had my way, I’d move to an open market,” Mr. Urstadt told The New York Observer in 2014. “No one would be favored. Would you put rent control on cars? On food? The first rent control was put in during World War II, became effective in 1947, and since then it has discouraged two things: new construction and maintenance.”

That provision of the legislation, known as vacancy decontrol, caused significant rent increases in tens of thousands of apartments, tenant groups estimated. It remained in effect until a Democratic-controlled Legislature repealed it last year.

Charles Jordan Urstadt was born on Oct. 27, 1928, in Manhattan. He hailed from an old New York family with real estate roots. A great-grandfather was born on a farm in the Bronx in 1840, and a grandfather bought buildings in the borough in the 1920s, including one in which Charles grew up. His parents, Charles George Urstadt and Claire (Jordan) Urstadt, owned and managed several apartment buildings in the Bronx.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science at 16, Charles enrolled at Dartmouth, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1949 and master’s in business administration from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. He received a law degree from the Cornell University School of Law. He served as a lieutenant in the Navy on an aircraft carrier.

Mr. Urstadt swam competitively since high school. When he was 72, he won a world championship in the 50-meter breaststroke in a U.S. Masters Swimming tournament.

Before he was recruited to state government, Mr. Urstadt worked for the developer William Zeckendorf, the real estate tycoon whose holdings included the Chrysler Building and who helped develop Chicago’s Miracle Mile on Michigan Avenue.

After serving as commissioner, Mr. Urstadt held an interest in the Douglas L. Elliman Co. real estate firm from 1973 to 1978 and the commercial brokerage Pearce, Urstadt, Mayer & Greer from 1979 to 1988. In 1975, he joined the board of Hubbard Real Estate Investments, a trust that bankrolled shopping centers in suburban New York. It was later renamed Urstadt Biddle Properties. He retired as chairman in December.

In addition to his son, who is chairman of Urstadt Biddle Properties, he is survived by his wife, Elinor (McClure Funk) Urstadt; his daughter, Catherine Biddle; and two granddaughters.

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