Tenants Fear
Vacancy Decontrol

By MICHAEL FINNEGAN
Daily News Staff Writer

She 77-year-old New York City woman said her landlord conned her into vacating the four-room apartment she rented for $65 a month and moving into a three-room unit costing nearly twice as much.

With her rent raised to $125, the woman said most of her $176 in Social Security benefits her only income went to the landlord.

Landlords say such alleged abuses are rare. But tenant advocates argue that the woman's allegations, made at a 1973 hearing, are a warning of what could happen to many New Yorkers if state lawmakers authorize landlords to raise rents to market rates when tenants move.

The procedure, known as vacancy decontrol, has emerged as a potential compromise in the battle over renewal of the state rent laws threatened with expiration on June 15.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer), leader of the drive to scrap the laws, focused attention on vacancy decontrol last week when he endorsed the procedure.

Although Bruno later stressed he supports vacancy decontrol in addition to phasing out rent laws over a few years, his comments reignited a highly charged debate.

That debate dates to 1971, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller approved vacancy decontrol in response to landlord complaints that the rent laws had crippled the housing market and made new construction a bad risk.

"It was hell for tenants," said Jane Benedict, who at the time was a Manhattan tenant advocate. "Any apartment that was vacated, the sky was the limit on rents."

Amid similar complaints from many tenants, Rockefeller in 1973 named a bi-partisan commission to "examine the rent-increase situation" and recommend state action.

The commission reported that rents for decontrolled apartments in the city had shot up an average 52% above those for units still subject to the state rent laws. Hikes of at least 45% were reported in Nassau and Westchester counties.

State Sen. Norman Levy (R-Nassau) told the commission the hikes had reached "crisis proportions" on Long Island. Levy now a Bruno ally in the rent showdown called for a rollback of the 1972 rent hikes and limits on future increases.

Landlords labeled the tenant allegations overblown, and the commission found "no convincing evidence" of harassment by owners trying to hike rents by booting tenants like the elderly city woman who testified at the 1973 hearing.

But the panel also concluded that decontrol had failed to spur new construction, stop building abandonment or encourage renovations reasons now cited by Bruno for scrapping rent laws. In fact, monthly renovation spending by landlords actually decreased after vacancy decontrol, the commission found.

Nonetheless, tenant complaints prodded state officials into repealing vacancy decontrol in 1974. The more than 400,000 units that had been removed from state rent laws were once again made subject to the regulations.

Landlords still dispute the commission's findings, saying high inflation and skyrocketing fuel costs were major factors in the rent hikes.

"The real estate market was as low as it's ever been," said Charles Urstadt, the former state housing commissioner who was the architect of vacancy decontrol. "New York City was on the verge of collapse."

Despite the commission's findings, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said he will not accept vacancy decontrol. Silver spokeswoman Pat Lynch said it would lead to "evictions and the exodus of the middle class from New York City."

Landlord groups say they back vacancy decontrol, but only under a two-year shift to market rents for most tenants.

Original Story Date: 042797
Original Story Section: City Central