Tenant Protest Snarls Midtown

NY Daily News, June 13, 1997
Rent rage exploded in Manhattan yesterday as chanting and sign-toting protesters angered by the threatened elimination of state rent laws marched on Gov. Pataki's office and blocked rush-hour traffic.

"Rent laws yes, decontrol no!" the estimated crowd of 1,000 shouted to banging drums that echoed off skyscrapers as they massed toward Pataki's office at Third Ave. and 40th St.

Cops arrested 31 protesters on disorderly conduct charges when they sat down in the intersection just before 6:30 p.m., backing up horn-honking midtown motorists for blocks.

The protest came as the clock ticked down to the looming Sunday midnight expiration of rent protections for more than 2 million tenants in the city and suburbs.

Police initially seemed overwhelmed by the larger-than-expected turnout. Several scuffles erupted as cops tried to control tenants who ignored them. Outside Pataki's office, marchers were surrounded by scores of hastily summoned police reinforcements, including many in riot helmets.

"Shame, shame, shame!" protesters yelled at police when 63-year-old Clare Dockery of the upper West Side was knocked to the ground near a barricade of police motorcycles. She was arrested later when she sat down in the intersection.

As protesters shouted "Arrest Pataki!" cops carried some demonstrators by the ankles and wrists into police vans. Police took them to the 17th Precinct on E. 51st St., where additional charges of resisting arrest were filed against five demonstrators. Three protesters remained in custody last night on outstanding criminal warrants.

"This is to save our homes, save our rent protections," said Deborah Schut of E. 20th St. in Manhattan, one of those busted by police.

The protest was triggered by fear that the laws that have protected tenants against large rent hikes for nearly a half century will be scrapped or severely weakened.

Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) have called for ending rent protections as tenants move out of their apartments or die. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has blocked vacancy decontrol and insisted on keeping the current laws.

Pataki, who said he did not see the protesters, last night charged that tenants were being "used as political pawns for political gain."

"I feel very much for them," he said. "When you've been frightened that your home could be lost, you tend to react very emotionally, and I totally understand that."

He said his proposed rent reform "would protect every single one of those tenants who was out there protesting." But several protesters said vacancy decontrol would spur landlords to harass tenants into moving so apartments could be rented for more money.

"The tenants will be harassed in a million different ways," said Al Thomas of Washington Heights.

At City Hall, meanwhile, Mayor Giuliani made the latest in a string of announcements in what he said was an effort to inform and protect tenants sweating out the rent war.

Giuliani said any landlord who received a city tax abatement must obey an agreement to maintain stabilized rents even if the regulations expire. City officials estimated about 428,000 of the rent-stabilized units in the five boroughs still would be covered. But state officials said the number was 56,000.

Landlord group officials said they had no obligation either way and would fight the issue in court.

With Mike Claffey and Henri E. Cauvin