James D. Harmon Jr. learned the value of a house as a child, shoveling coal into the furnace of one of two Upper West Side buildings owned by his grandfather, a French immigrant who worked as a waiter. "Jimmy, you take care of your building and your building will take care of you," his grandfather told him.
"But the word he used in French wasn't building" Mr. Harmon recalled the other day. "The word he used in French was 'maison,' which means home."
Now Mr. Harmon, 68, who grew up in one of those buildings — a bow-fronted town house on West 76th Street near Central Park — has gone to the United States Supreme Court contending that New York City's rent laws constitute a "taking" of his property without just compensation, a violation of his constitutional rights.
The regulations are meant to support the government's goal of maintaining affordable housing for its citizens. Instead, he says, the laws have forced him and his family to shoulder the government's burden and extend what is essentially "privatized welfare" to rent-stabilized tenants who are paying rent 59 percent below market rates and who have rights of succession to their lodgings in his house.
"Put yourself in our position," Mr. Harmon, a former federal prosecutor, said of himself and his wife, Jeanne. "Suppose somebody told you, you've got an extra bedroom, we'd like to put someone in there for as long as they want to stay, and you have to take care of them for the rest of their lives and the rest of your life. That's really what this is like."
The city's rent regulations have been challenged many times going back decades, making this case an uphill battle. Mr. Harmon has lost twice in lower courts, most recently in September, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, ruled that the rent-stabilization law did not constitute a "taking" because it did not stop him from using the building as a rental property and did not stop him from living there himself.
"Courts usually pay scant attention to these well-settled claims and routinely reject them," said Jarred Kassenoff, a lawyer for landlords and tenants.
But Mr. Harmon appears to have caught the attention of the high court, which has asked the city and state to file answers by Jan. 4 to his petition to be heard. The case could have wide repercussions for the almost one million rent-stabilized apartments in the city.
"We are confident that once the U.S. Supreme Court receives our brief, the lower courts' decision will stand," said Leonard Koerner, chief of appeals for the city's Law Department.
The Harmon family's ties to the house go back to 1949, when his grandfather, the waiter, and his grandmother, a Belgian governess, bought it. Mr. Harmon grew up there, delivering newspapers to Basil Rathbone and other neighbors, until he went on to West Point, where he was in the class of 1965. He was awarded a Silver Star in Vietnam.
Mr. Harmon and his wife returned to live there in 2002, and three years later he took out a $1.5 million mortgage to buy his brother's share of the house.
Mr. Harmon and his wife live on the parlor floor, behind the bay windows sheathed in decorative copper. With the appraising eye of an owner, he points out a ragged hole in the window glass left by a bullet in the 1970s.
The floors above are divided into six one-bedroom apartments. Three are market rate rentals. The other three are occupied by rent-stabilized tenants inherited from his parents. They have been there for what Mr. Harmon calculates as 90 tenant-years, and it is not necessarily, he says, by virtue of their neediness.
"It is all about luck — a racket in which property owners and market rate tenants always lose," Mr. Harmon says in his petition, borrowing a term he often encountered when he was chief counsel to the President's Commission on Organized Crime in the Reagan administration.
Over the years, small things have galled him, like on a morning 12 years ago, when he opened the Sunday newspaper to find a subtenant bragging that he lived in a spacious one-bedroom apartment with a terrace in an exciting neighborhood near Central Park for "practically free," or $1,190 a month. The writer called it "real estate karma," and the building was, yes, the Harmon family "maison."
"Karma!" Mr. Harmon marvels, finding that an exquisitely astute alternative for his word, "racket."
Mr. Harmon has an affinity for uphill causes. In his previous foray to the Supreme Court, he got the court to reverse a finding of contempt for two Yonkers City Council members who refused to pass a housing and school desegregation ordinance. He also secured a pardon for Sgt. Osvaldo Hernandez, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, from a youthful gun conviction so he could become a New York City police officer, but he has not gotten the job because the Police Department says only people "who have never been convicted of a felony" can become officers.
Mr. Harmon said he had appealed to his assemblywoman, Linda B. Rosenthal, a strong supporter of rent regulations. Ms. Rosenthal said Mr. Harmon had asked for an exception to rent regulations for his building, which she found untenable because it would, she said, extend to thousands of other people in "the vanishing middle class."
"I understand he thinks he could make more money, that he is being deprived," she said. "But I have so many constituents who would willingly trade his problems for theirs."
As for luck, she said, Mr. Harmon was "lucky enough to inherit a town house."
She said her views had nothing to do with the fact that she lives in a rent-regulated apartment, though she added, "If I didn't, I probably wouldn't be representing tenants in this district because I couldn't afford to live in the city."
Mr. Harmon said he had nothing against his tenants, whom he greets and mingles with at the mailboxes and in the floral-carpeted foyer.
According to his original lawsuit, filed in 2008, the tenant in Apartment 3F was paying $951.22 a month and owns a home on Long Island, which the Harmons contend that they are effectively subsidizing. (Since the lawsuit was filed, maximum stabilized rents in the city have gone up between 2.25 percent and 4.5 percent a year.)
The tenant in 4F was paying even less — $908.72. Both of those tenants did not return telephone calls.
The third rent-stabilized tenant, David Mlotok, moved into 2R with his then-girlfriend in 1976, he said recently, as he stopped to talk while bringing his dry-cleaning home. Mr. Mlotok was paying $1,298.24, according to the papers. Now a youthful-looking 73 with a full head of white hair, he said he had worked in video production, as a freelance photographer and doing stage work at Lincoln Center, and now works in publishing.
Mr. Mlotok said that whether he could pay market rent was "a personal issue." But in the final analysis, he said, it was just an apartment, and it was not irreplaceable.
"The apartment doesn't keep me in the city; New York keeps me in the city," he said. He mused about moving to a small town in Colorado. How about Brooklyn or the Bronx?
"To me, to live in New York is to live in Manhattan," Mr. Mlotok said. "To live in Manhattan is to live just north of the park and down into the Village."
But Mr. Mlotok said that Mr. Harmon had been a good landlord. "He never did the typical tenant confrontation," he said.