As Money Talks,
Albany Listens

The landlord lobby gave $700,000 to the New York State Republicans this year, and the head of the state Senate responded by barking like a herring-stuffed seal last Thursday.

Joseph Bruno announced that all rent regulations would drop dead, as of June 16. "I don't need any votes!" he declared.

As Bruno strode triumphantly from the Sheraton hotel ballroom, ecstatic landlords reached from their tables to touch the hem of his garment.

"Fabulous!" swooned one.

"Better than Pericles!" gushed another.

They got what they paid for, which is a man from an upstate farm, elected with a few thousand votes from other farmers, deciding to change the terms of life in a city he hates.

But a few people who heard the speech had to be swallowing hard.

This year, not only did the landlords acquire the state Republicans for 700 grand, but they openly boasted of having played king maker for five newly elected Democrats two members of the Assembly, two state senators and one judge.

"We knocked off a lot of incumbents," bragged Frank Ricci, the head of government affairs for the landlords' lobby, the Rent Stabilization Association.

Among those at the Sheraton for the Bruno speech were Adriano Espaillat and Nelson Denis, two Manhattan Democrats elected to the Assembly this year for the first time thanks, in part, to money piped into their campaign by the landlords.

Both won primary races by a few hundred votes over incumbents. Both received big contributions late in the game in Espaillat's case, more than $20,000 gathered from the landlords' political action committee, from an investment firm located at the address of the landlords' lobby, and from people in the real estate business. As first reported in the Bridge Leader newspaper of northern Manhattan, the contributions were all close to the maximum of $2,650.

The president of the lobby, Joseph Strasburg, crowed in a real estate newsletter about dumping the incumbent, John Brian Murtaugh. "Espaillat had no problem supporting our issues," Strasburg said.

Big mistake, says Espaillat, who represents parts of Washington Heights and Inwood. He insists landlords will get no more from him than an "open mind," and that he was horrified by Bruno's plan.

"They would be devastating," said Espaillat. "It will kill my neighborhood. It will kill my district.

"I am supportive of all the rent-protection laws as they stand today. I live in a rent-stabilized apartment, my grandparents live in rent-stabilized, and my parents do as well," Espaillat said.

Other candidates backed by the landlord lobby include David Rosado of the Bronx and John Sampson of Brooklyn, both in the state Senate, and Milton Tingling in the Civil Court.

Nelson Denis, who now represents East Harlem in the Assembly, says he got about $5,000 from the lobby. He's not ready to abandon rent control or stabilization, but makes a frank, politically dangerous point. "Whatever we have got now is not working," he says. "Clearly, there must be some other configuration, some optimal point, that will work for landlords and tenants."

Proof of the failure, he says, is just seven minutes from midtown Manhattan, where there are 600 buildings in East Harlem abandoned both by private landlords and the city. That comes to 40 solid acres of wasteland.

And it is insane that deadbeat tenants are able to beat landlords out of months and even years of rent without a court forcing payment.

At the same time, declaring a free market is a reckless answer. Rent regulation is built into the social arrangements in the city, like a badly set bone that the body has grown around.

In theory, a free market sounds good. In practice, people paying so-called low rents would get pushed out.

It is a phony distraction to point out that an actress or politician is paying "below market" rent when the market was set a few months ago by a goofy 26-year-old who is suddenly making $500,000 a year on Wall Street.

And the government should have something to say about rents. After all, it is the mass transit system, operated by the government, that makes it possible for so many people to live in such small spaces.

The landlords are unlikely to make much headway with Espaillat or Denis.

But Bruno has proven a fine investment.

"We are going to liberate New York City," said Bruno.

You might say Bruno should mind his own business. But let's face it: With all the money he has collected, that is exactly what he is doing.

Original Story Date: 12/08/96
Original Story Section: News Fix