Zero Hour Deal On Rent Limits

by JON R. SORENSEN, KIMBERLY SCHAYE and MICHAEL FINNEGAN
New York Daily News, June 16, 1997
Gov. Pataki and legislative leaders this morning announced "conceptual agreement" on new rent laws for more than 2 million tenants in New York City and the suburbs.

The tentative deal was announced after nearly 14 hours of tense negotiations and minutes after the old laws expired at midnight.

The proposed laws would increase the number of high-rent apartments subjected to "luxury decontrol," and would allow landlords to increase rents sharply on many vacant apartments.

It does not, however, include a full-scale vacancy decontrol provision that would allow landlords unlimited rent hikes as tenants move out or die.

Officials stressed the deal was extremely fragile and could easily unravel. They said the agreement would:

Grant landlords a 20% rent increase on a vacant apartment if the old tenant lived there for at least eight years. For each additional year after that, the landlord would get an extra increase of 0.6%.

Remove rent protections for tenants with high annual household incomes, lowering the threshold from $250,000 to between $175,000 and $195,000.

Apply the new income limits only to apartments renting for at least $1,800 or 2,000 a month.

Require tenants to place rent in escrow, during disputes with landlords.

Enact new penalties for landlords who harass tenants.

"I'm glad that we avoided a crisis," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer), who led the drive for sweeping change of rent laws, said he was "happy, but not ecstatic" at the tentative deal.

Silver said he hoped state lawmakers would approve the new rent laws by 9 a.m.

The last-minute announcement came after Pataki, Bruno and Silver spent the day in tense negotiations and political finger-pointing.

The main sticking point that delayed a deal was Pataki's call for scrapping rent-hike limits on more than 1 million apartments as tenants move out or die.

Over a decade or more, vacancy decontrol would eliminate rent protections that tenants have relied on since 1943.

Bruno had also demanded vacancy decontrol before the deal.

But Silver refused to compromise, saying that vacancy decontrol would spur landlord harassment of tenants and trigger huge rent hikes that would drive the middle class out of the city.

Earlier, the Republican governor accused Silver of seeking to kill the rent laws in a move to inflict political damage on him.

Silver insisted his aim was strictly to protect tenants. He accused Pataki of letting rent protections go "over the cliff" to repay landlords for campaign contributions.

Tenants kept up the pressure for maintaining rent protections as the deadline neared.

Eight buses of tenants descended on the capitol last night to monitor the Senate and Assembly. Tenants held candlelight vigils outside the capitol and in front of Pataki's New York City office.

The precise impact of the temporary lapse in state rent laws remained unclear early this morning.

The old laws required landlords in the five boroughs to offer renewals to tenants whose leases expire before Oct. 13.

But with the expiration, landlords could refuse to offer renewals to tenants whose leases expire after Oct. 13, or they could demand market rents from those tenants.

The most dramatic impact could be for several thousand tenants most of them elderly in Westchester and Nassau and upstate counties covered by state rent control.

In theory, they today could face notices of evictions or rent hikes that could take effect as soon as Aug. 1.

Bracing for potential panic by tenants and trying to avoid political backlash Pataki, Mayor Giuliani and other officials set up hotlines for apartment dwellers to call with complaints about alleged rent gouging or harassment.

"The best I can assure them is that nobody is going to be thrown out of their apartment," Giuliani said.

The city's top landlords have urged building owners to continue acting as if the old rent laws were still in force and offer tenants lease renewals under the expired legal guidelines.


Have a question about what the last-minute rent law deal means to you? Here are some numbers to call:

CITY HOTLINES

Call (212) 487-6633 to complain about landlord harassment.

Call (212) 487-5858 for legal questions.

The hearing-impaired should call (212) 487-7010.

STATE HOTLINE

The state housing agency's toll-free, 24-hour hotline is (888) 736-8457.

OTHER CONTACTS

The Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant group, (212) 693-0550.

The Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group, (800) 924-3933.