Lobby vs. Cottages May Oust Seniors

New York Daily News, June 19, 1997

Records show that RFR Holding paid former State Housing Commissioner Donald Halperin $10,000 to lobby the Pataki administration and legislative leaders for a legal change that could speed the development project.

The developer plans to demolish eight one-bedroom cottages overlooking a courtyard garden on Third Ave. between 77th and 78th Sts. and erect a 23-story apartment tower.

Five elderly tenants are fighting to stop the wrecking ball and save the cottages that each of them has called home for at least 27 years.

Halperin confirmed that the "conceptual agreement" on new rent laws announced by Gov. Pataki and legislative leaders could bring RFR "closer" to evicting the seniors and launching construction.

"If some of the rent-controlled tenants decided they didn't want to live there anymore or passed away, it would be easier to do it," with the proposed legal change in place, Halperin said yesterday.

The change, which could be in the final legislation expected as early as today, enraged the elderly tenants.

"It's dirty finagling," said Leslie Youngblood, 76, who has lived in his apartment for 31 years. "They can't get us out any other way, so they're trying this."

The measure also angered community groups that have tried without success to obtain landmark designation for the unusual cottages atop a row of stores. "It is beyond disgusting," said Deborah Valcourt of the Coalition to Save the Cottages.

The anger focused on a little-noticed provision of the rent deal that would let owners demolish buildings occupied by three or fewer tenants and relocate them to comparable units.

State law already enables landlords to evict tenants from rent-stabilized units to clear land for new housing. But it's far more difficult to evict rent-controlled tenants and that's the part of the law that RFR wanted changed.

The developer says that two of the tenants are rent-controlled. That's three fewer than what the seniors say. Their attorney, David Rozenholc, said the new rent law would encourage harassment of the seniors to get the remaining renters down to three.

Halperin said the seniors rejected relocation offers and wanted a financial settlement to move which Youngblood denied.

"Is there some kind of divine right to just live where you live in a particularly attractive situation when you're standing in the way of 100 families living in the same location?" Halperin asked.

The precise impact the rent agreement would have on the tenant battle was unclear yesterday because legal language was still being negotiated by Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselear).

Halperin said he lobbied aides to Pataki and Bruno for the change to speed demolition projects. But Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon insisted the lobbyist had not spoken to anyone on the governor's staff.

"To suggest that this legislation will help this guy without seeing it [the final legislation] is irresponsible and ridiculous," McKeon said.

Bruno spokesman John McArdle said the measure had nothing to do with lobbying by Halperin. Silver's spokeswoman declined to comment.