Upstaters Call Shots on Rent

Daily News, June 12, 1997
At the turn of the century, famed Hell's Kitchen ward boss and political philosopher George Washington Plunkitt urged the city to purge itself of the "hayseeds" from Albany. Over a half century later, mayoral candidate Norman Mailer ran on a platform with the same idea. Face it, this town is all tinsel and glitter. We are owned, lock, stock and barrel, by the upstaters.

If ever there was a time to get the upstate legislators from backwater hamlets like Cheektowaga, Oneonta, Millbrook and Rensselaer off our backs, it is now. For the past six months, a wealthy, arrogant farmer named Joseph Bruno has singlehandedly kept some 2 million New Yorkers twisting in the wind trying to end rent regulations.

Bruno calls controls a distortion of the free market and argues that the landlords who contributed millions to his political coffers are subsizing New Yorkers through rent controls.

This is a joke. There is no such thing as a free market. Ask a tobacco farmer in Kentucky or a potato farmer in Idaho about the joys of a free market and let them explain their farm subsidies. Or ask a homeowner on Long Island, or in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, about federal subsidies in the form of FHA mortgages. Please.

So let's start with two polls taken in recent days that show rent regulations have the overwhelming support of city dwellers - 70 percent in a New York Times poll published yesterday, and by a whopping - eight in 10 city residents-in the Eyewitness News / Daily News poll a few days ago.

But so what?

What we in the city think about our own problems, even our own destiny means less than nothing to the upstaters. Their counterparts in the U.S. Senate have shown the same callous indifference to flood victims in Grand Forks.

Yesterday I took the subway to Sunnyside, to visit Marie Janek, a 63-year-old woman who lives on 42nd Street. A nice outer borough neighborhood lined with trees and flower beds, and where yesterday the familiar summer rituals of watering the sidewalks and pulling up weeds had begun.

But because of Bruno and his knee-bending Republican collegues, Janek and many of the Queens residents I talked to feel they have been sucker-punched by people they have never met and who could care less.

"My head is spinning," says a perplexed Marie Janek, whose landlord, the H.B. Condo Holding Corp. wants to evict her from her one-bedroom apartment. She has lived there, she says, since 1978 with her widowed mother, who died in January. A few days ago, she thought some good news was coming her way and about time.

Since then she has been barraged by landlord letters telling her to get out of the apartment for which she is paying $480 in rent. About 60 percent of the apartments in the tidy, six-story building are owned. Naturally, free market and all that, the condo's sponsors would like to see Marie leave the apartment, and then turn it into a condo.

And just as naturally, Janek wants to stay in the apartment.

In February, a few weeks after her mother's death, Janek got this letter from H.B. Condo Holding Corp. in Jackson Heights.

It began nicely. "We are sorry to hear about the death of Margaret Janek [her mother] and offer our sincere condolences to the family." But it ended up with a threat: "We request that the apartment be turned over to us after you wind up Margaret Janek's affairs."

The coffin was still warm but this landlord's heart was already stone cold.

And a few days ago, another knife in Janek's heart. "A man called and said he had good news for me. He came to my door a few days ago and handed me a paper and left in a hurry."

The "good news" was actualy a petition filed by the landlord's lawyers, Kucker Kraus & Bruh of Manhattan. It named her and Queens Public Administrator Mindy Trepel under the headline, "The People of the State of New York (By the Grace of God Free and Independent)" and it isn't worth the paper the lawyers could have bought at a dime store.

It isn't because the Queens public administrator says so. "I won't be there," she says of the petition asking her and Janek to appear in Queens Surrogate Court on June 19th to settle Margaret Janek's estate.

"I won't be there because the children are the mother's estate distributees," Trepel said. "I am not needed in this."

Still, the paper raised more concerns for Marie Janek. She has already been to see a therapist about her worrisome problems and the threatening letters from the landlord and his paid lawyers.

"I am mad now," she says. "I am going to stick this thing out."

I asked Harry Otterman, manager for the holding company about this and he told me that "I don't believe she acually lived there as she claims."

How did he know that?

"I made a preliminary investigation," he said. "Some people told me she didn't live in that apartment."

Well, I said, it would be nice for you if she left?

"Yes," he agreed. "But this is not about rent control and even if the rent controls are lifted Monday I am not going to rush over and evict everyone, at least for now."

Later, I talked to construction worker John Pagano, 39, who lives in a building a few doors away from Janek's in Sunnyside.

"I'm worried, sure," he said of the $600-a-month one-bedroom apartment where he has lived for more than three decades.

"If they take controls off, I am going to move out of this city, maybe to Saratoga Springs. "He blames [Gov. George] Pataki and Bruno and he wonders why the mayor, Rudolph Guiliani has been relatively silent on this explosive issue.

"I voted for him, too," he said.