Handful of GOP senators feel heat from tenants

by JON R. SORENSEN and KIMBERLY SCHAYE
NY Daily News, June 13, 1997
The future of state rent laws for more than 2 million tenants rests in the hands of a few key Republican senators who face intense pressure from renters anxious about their homes.

How intense? Sen. Nicholas Spano of Yonkers said his dental hygienist quizzed him about his rent position yesterday as she poked sharp metal tools in his mouth.

"My obvious answer was: 'Any position you want it to be!' " Spano said.

The rent war spotlight focused even more tightly on Spano and four fellow GOP senators yesterday as the Sunday expiration deadline for the state laws loomed closer with no break in the impasse between Gov. Pataki and state lawmakers.

The senators are being urged to buck the call by Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno for scrapping rent protections as tenants leave their apartments or die and vote to renew the current laws.

If three more Republicans join Sens. Frank Padavan of Queens and Roy Goodman of Manhattan in breaking ranks with the 35-26 Senate majority a scenario all but unheard of in Albany the six-month war for sweeping rent overhaul would fail.

So tenant groups for months have bombarded the key senators with phone calls, leaflets, mailings and newspaper ads. The calculated, campaign-style attack has had an impact even reaching Spano in the dental chair.

"They say [changes] would only affect people making $175,000 or more, but I don't believe that for a minute," said the dental hygienist, Kim Borka, who lives in a $500-a-month apartment in Hastings, north of Yonkers.

"They're just going to abolish the law altogether, and so what's going to happen to me?"

Spano is caught between party loyalty and constituent demands, because his district includes roughly 29,000 rent-regulated units. He says he supports the tenant view but won't say whether he would buck Bruno, of upstate Rensselaer. "I'm hopeful . . . we are going to reach an agreement," he said.

Sen. Guy Velella (R-Bronx) is in a similar position. He has about 40,000 rent-regulated units in his district. His spokeswoman, Elizabeth Klinker, said staffers are having trouble finding space for the thousands of tenant letters that have piled up in the senator's Albany office.

"We can't even begin to fit these things in the file cabinets, so we've been keeping them aside in boxes," she said. "He's certainly gotten the message that they're for rent control."

The bombardment of Velella only eased this week when his mother died. Martin Brennan, the coordinator of the tenant attack, said renters backed off "out of respect for his personal loss."

Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Queens), has supported the GOP position. But he showed signs of waffling yesterday on vacancy decontrol.

The potential change of heart came amid pressure from tenants including some who picketed the Ridgewood, Queens, eatery where Maltese recently ate with his uncle.

"I'm not going to say how I would vote at this point on the bill," Maltese said.

What's at Stake in Fight Over Regs

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the rent battle:

I live in a rent-controlled apartment. Does the fight affect me?

There is no change for the 70,000 rent-controlled tenants in New York City. But the 8,000 rent-controlled tenants in Westchester and Nassau counties and upstate could face large rent hikes.

Will rent-stabilized apartments be affected?

Yes. The current laws restrict the size of rent hikes for about 1 million apartments in New York City. About 40,000 tenants who have lived in their rent-stabilized units since before July 1971 won't be affected, housing experts say.

I have a lease now. Will it still be good?

Yes. You're covered by the terms of the lease until it expires.

Will I lose my right to an automatic lease renewal if I live in a rent-stabilized apartment?

Yes. But tenants whose leases expire before Oct. 13 should have been offered a renewal already. The allowable increase is 5% for a one-year lease and 7% for a two-year lease.

What about tenants who are poor and elderly?

A special housing subsidy for low-income elderly called the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption will expire with the rent laws. But city officials have said they will try to continue the subsidy.

What happens if the laws expire, and state leaders enact new ones later?

It's possible, but not certain, that new provisions would be made retroactive to cover any alleged abuses that occurred in the interim.

What happens if I want to rent a vacant apartment that was covered by the laws?

Most landlords say they can charge market rents for these units as soon as the current laws expire.

I have a federal Section 8 housing subsidy for the poor. Is that at risk?

No, that program is not affected.

Where can I call for information?

Contact the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant group, at (212) 693-0550, or the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group, at (800) 924-3933.