Pataki's Idea Of Control

By JON R. SORENSEN and MICHAEL FINNEGAN
NY Daily News, May 13, 1997
Gov. Pataki yesterday proposed wiping out rent protections when tenants vacate their apartments.

Stepping into the war over endangered state rent laws, Pataki said landlords should be able to charge whatever they can get as tenants move out or die.

But in proposing New York's second try at vacancy decontrol, he steered clear of setting a date for the death of laws that have protected millions of tenants from large rent hikes since 1943.

"There should be no arbitrary cut-off date," Pataki said. "You shouldn't say in five years that the laws end, or in 10 years the laws end."

The plan pleased neither side in the war over the threatened June 15 elimination of rent protections for 2 million tenants.

Pataki's proposal would preserve the laws that limit how much landlords can charge for lease renewal, and it would keep tenants eligible for new leases.

The plan would allow domestic partners and immediate relatives who live with a primary tenant to keep an apartment after that tenant dies extending a law already in effect.

The plan would cover households with incomes of up to $175,000 a year, a cut from the existing $250,000 income ceiling.

Those tenants represent roughly 1% of the estimated 1.1 million rent-regulated apartments in the city and suburbs.

Pataki also proposed regulations to guard against rent gouging and tenant harassment by landlords, and provisions that maintain current rent protections for senior citizens and the disabled.

Census figures show that about 78,000 rent-regulated apartments change hands each year, a rate that would eliminate all protections in about 14 years.

Still, Pataki contended his plan would keep regulations in effect for decades.

The governor, who is expected to seek reelection next year, used the plan to bill himself as a tenant champion and a moderate, tempering threats by state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) to wipe out rent laws.

Pataki, who in the past explicitly backed vacancy decontrol a phrase he avoided uttering yesterday teamed with Bruno in demanding that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) compromise on a demand for total renewal of the current system.

Bruno, who has threatened to let the laws expire in five weeks if state leaders don't agree to phase them out over four years or less, insisted Pataki's overhaul doesn't go far enough.

He rapped the provision that would allow relatives to keep rent-regulated units, calling it "the most ridiculous thing that anybody who believes in democracy can relate to."

Pledging not to extend the laws past June 15, Bruno said the rent system would die unless Silver compromised.

Silver stood his ground, saying of Pataki's plan: "The eagle has landed. The bad news is it still looks like a turkey."

Silver charged that Pataki "has chosen to take the side of vacancy decontrol and the side of the landlords and abandon the middle class."

Mayor Giuliani, who supports the current rent system, called vacancy decontrol a mistake but avoided criticizing Pataki.

The reelection-seeking mayor instead said Pataki "could make some real improvements," such as keeping the income ceiling for tenants closer to the current $250,000.

Landlords and tenants launched separate attacks on the plan.

"I am extremely disappointed that Gov. Pataki basically wants to maintain rent regulation even after 50 years of failure and economic devastation," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a group of 25,000 landlords.

Scott Sommer, chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, warned that tenants would channel their anger into political retaliation.

"If Gov. Pataki doesn't turn around, then we're going to turn Gov. Pataki around and evict him from his free public housing in Albany, the governor's mansion," Sommer said.

The tenants warned of a repeat of housing horror stories from 1971 to 1974, the state's first try at vacancy decontrol.

More than 400,000 apartments were deregulated at that time.

The state reinstated rent regulations after studies found rents had skyrocketed.