Renting & Raving In Albany

NY Daily News, May 16, 1997
By branding vacancy decontrol a "nonnegotiable item," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has led the war of nerves over rent control into a no-man's land where chaos looms for millions of tenants.

Silver paints himself as the Stalwart Defender of the Downtrodden Tenant. Don't be fooled. He is exactly the opposite. His rigidity and foot-stamping petulance will not make the problem go away.

His stance, long suspected but made public only Wednesday, is especially foolish given the facts. Vacancy decontrol, expanded luxury decontrol for well-heeled renters and permanent protection for the elderly and disabled are the key elements to an emerging consensus. They are fair to tenants and landlords.

Those measures would guarantee a gradual transition about 88,000 apartments a year out of 1.1 million to the free market. Both Gov. Pataki and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno have indicated a willingness to accept those terms and to toughen penalties for landlords who try to drive out tenants.

Silver's refusal to budge means he is taunting Bruno, who has the political cards to allow all rent laws to expire at midnight June 15. When they wake up the next morning, renters will have only Silver to blame.

The need for reform is unquestionable. Rent control deprives many landlords of fair profit, opening the market to speculators who bleed renters while letting properties deteriorate. That drives down values and discourages construction of new units. Tax revenues also plummet. Rent reform would bring the city $100 million a year in added property taxes, one study found.

Meanwhile, with tenants in a state of near-panic, Silver continues to defend the indefensible. Bruno at least has modified his initial position, though he is wrong to try to narrowly limit who can inherit apartments. The courts have ruled that successor rights go to domestic partners, gay as well as heterosexual, and family members. Pataki has accepted those rights.

Still, it's unrealistic to expect Bruno to compromise further until Silver gets into the game. Perhaps the following item will inspire Silver: In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin has just moved to do away with huge state subsidies for housing. He wants the private sector to take over, saying it can do a better job. Meaning New York now really is Moscow on the Hudson.

Hic!

It's starting small on only five campuses but a movement to ban alcoholic beverages from fraternity houses has some college students angry. You can hear them prattling about rights and the alleged hypocrisy of their elders, but the sound and fury signifies nothing unless those students can answer a question: Why are they really perturbed? Observers might say it's because these kids have a drinking problem. Or are working on one.

In the fall, fraternities at Rochester Institute of Technology, Villanova, Florida Southern, Southern Illinois and Northern Colorado universities will be dry. Some national fraternities also will adopt the policy. This is only a drop in an overflowing bucket of booze, but at least it's proof no pun intended that someone is facing concerns about hard-drinking youths.

And statistics show there's no better place to start than frat houses. In 1995, a Harvard study found that binge drinking consumption of five or more drinks in one sitting was more common among frat members than other students. A whopping 86% fell into the binge category, compared with 45% of nonmembers. Among women, 80% of sorority members were binge drinkers, as opposed to 36% among nonmembers.

Leaving aside accidents and other booze-related incidents, just think of all the brain cells being destroyed. Evidence of this can be found in student reaction to the restrictions. Said one student: "I think this is unconstitutional."

One should hope this kid isn't a history major. Unless there's some obscure amendment the Budweiser Act? that only he has heard of. Or is he thinking of the Declaration of Independence and the inalienable right to drive the porcelain bus?

Gripers also argue that frat members will only get drunk off-campus, and then climb into cars. Which seems to be another indication that college drinking is out of control.

Let's hope the alcohol ban spreads swiftly. Or America's colleges will be setting up AA chapters on Fraternity Row.

Let's See, 15% of $6,000 Is . . .

Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest warned tourists against overpricing and strongarm tactics at some nightspots. Now comes word of four customers who were charged $6,000 for dinner and drinks. The restaurant had a policy of multiplying prices by a factor of 10 after 7 p.m. Its manager was quoted as saying, "We charge what the market will bear."

So if you're going to Budapest, you might have to go Hungary.