Poles Apart In Rent Battle

by MICHAEL FINNEGAN
Daily News, June 8, 1997
In seven days, more than 2 million tenants face the threatened elimination of state protections that limit the size of rent hikes.

State officials remain deadlocked in a bitter rent war. Gov. Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rennselaer) want to end the protections as tenants move out of their apartments or die. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has vowed to block such a change.

The stakes are highest in Manhattan, the borough where both sides say deregulation would trigger the biggest rent hikes.

At London Terrace Gardens, a vast complex on W. 23d St. in Chelsea, landlord Andrew Hoffman and tenant Meryl Stein work opposite sides in the battle. Their hopes and fears reflect those across the city as the June 15 deadline looms.

The Landlord

Andrew Hoffman, whose family has owned part of London Terrace Gardens since 1945, says rent laws have turned the 1,000-unit complex into a housing lottery.

Winners are long-time residents with apartments they keep for years as the state limits allowable rent hikes. Losers are the newcomers who pay higher, market-rate prices.

"It's unfair," Hoffman says.

Flipping through the rent rolls last week, he cited a 550-square-foot studio where a long-time tenant pays $427 a month. Then he pointed to an identical unit that costs a recent arrival $1,321.

"Clearly the people in the $1,300 apartments are subsidizing the people in the $400 apartments," Hoffman says.

The 17-story Romanesque complex of burnt-orange brick buildings has become one of Manhattan's hottest rental properties as Chelsea has blossomed into a hot neighborhood of new restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

"I have an across-the-board mix of seniors, yuppies, families who have been living here for 20 years," says Hoffman, who lives on the upper East Side with his wife and three children.

The estimated market value of Hoffman's complex is $43 million, city records show. The annual property tax bill comes to $1.9 million. The owner concedes he makes a profit, but would not say how much.

Still, he says the state laws have cut his bottom line. He also complained about the state law that lets relatives and domestic partners keep rent-regulated units when the main tenant dies.

"It's gotten to the point where the extended family member is almost anyone in their life," says Hoffman, who contends that only immediate relatives and domestic partners who live in the units should be allowed to keep them.

Hoffman hasn't decided how he'll handle possible expiration of the laws. But as chairman of a landlord group, the Community Housing Improvement Program, he knows his legal duty. He has offered renewals under current rent guidelines to tenants whose leases expire by Sept. 30.

But he wouldn't say whether he will honor those offers for tenants who have not accepted renewal offers before June 15. He promises, however, not to do anything "rash."

The Tenant

Meryl Stein has lived in London Terrace Gardens since 1984, sharing a one-bedroom apartment for most of the first decade. She got a sunny studio of her own in 1994, and moved in with her two cats, Boopsie and Baby.

Stein pays $817 a month. The 45-year-old director of a nonprofit housing group gets an $897 paycheck every two weeks. That means she spends nearly half her take-home pay on rent.

"There's not a whole lot of money left for extras," says Stein, explaining she's cut back on restaurants and movies.

During a tough financial spot last year, Stein paid half her rent at the beginning of the month and half in the middle for about six months, but building managers cracked down.

To Stein, state rent protections are "an absolute necessity, not a luxury."

She said she had to pass up several London Terrace studios while she was on a waiting list for her current apartment because all rented for more than $1,000 a month.

She fears total deregulation, which would force her to move out of Manhattan. "I'd have to find a share in Brooklyn, but I'd be displacing someone else who wouldn't be able to afford that."

"It's a ripple effect," she says.

Like Hoffman, Stein has a professional interest in the rent war. As executive director of the Chelsea Housing Group, she advises tenants who have disputes with their landlords.

She hopes state lawmakers will reject the call by Pataki and Bruno for vacancy decontrol. Stein said the change would undermine the diversity of neighborhoods like Chelsea.

"New York City just wouldn't be New York City any more," she said. "You have a mix of artists, teachers, social workers, working class entire communities would change."

She also fears the disappearance of affordable housing in Manhattan.

"Once an apartment is decontrolled, it's lost forever to the affordable housing market," she says.