Stop Rent War On Middle Class

NY Daily News, June 4, 1997

Affordable housing, together with quality public education, real job development and accessible health care, are the basic underpinnings of a vibrant, growing middle class in New York.

Led by Gov. Pataki since 1995, state Republicans have mounted a vigorous attack on health care, education and job development. This year, they've turned their war on the middle class to its last remaining stronghold — affordable housing. That's what their attack on New York's rent law is all about.

The governor's plan to end rent protection, called vacancy decontrol, puts a huge bag of cash behind every tenant's door and then expects landlords to resist the temptation to throw tenants out to get the cash.

Leading law enforcement officials, like Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, have expressed fears that vacancy decontrol would mean widespread landlord harassment of tenants aimed at moving them out so rents could be hiked. Morgenthau predicted an even greater potential for landlord abuse now than a decade ago, when a tight market and the prospect of higher rents saw unscrupulous landlords resorting to tactics ranging from "bringing prostitutes into the building to taking the hinges off doors to flooding the apartments."

Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes also has recognized that tougher landlord penalties are no match for this temptation. In a recent article, Hynes called making it a crime for landlords to harass tenants out of their apartments "a quick fix." Hynes wrote, "I find it hard to believe that such an offense would be enforceable and prevent failures to provide adequate heat or hot water or make needed repairs."

We've seen what vacancy decontrol can do. In 1971, the Republicans tried it. The result: Harassment of tenants, chaos in the city's housing market and rent hikes of up to 50% were far too common.

As with education, health care and economic development, Assembly Democrats have a better plan to protect New York's middle class. Rent regulation is needed as long as there is a housing shortage. Doing away with it by Albany fiat, as Gov. Pataki proposes, means sticker shock and tenant harassment for millions of hardworking New Yorkers.

The better solution? Eliminate the housing shortage. How? Build housing.

If about 21,000 units of housing are added in New York City, for example, rent regulation, under current law, will simply disappear. That's because these new units would boost the vacancy rate above 5%, thereby ending the housing emergency that triggers rent protections. In that situation, tenants would be protected as well as they are now, not by illusionary penalties but by a truly free market in which landlords and tenants negotiate on a level playing field.

We're not there yet. But Assembly Democrats have offered a way to increase affordable housing stock under the state budget the Assembly has passed. We call it "Building New York," and through an innovative public-private partnership it would provide new and rehabilitated housing units specifically targeted to meet the needs of the elderly, and working families.

Initiatives funded through this plan, which has been endorsed by the New York City Housing Partnership, include:

An Affordable Homeownership Development Program, which would provide resources for improving homes and making home ownership affordable for middle-income families;

The Restore segment of the Housing Opportunities for the Elderly program, which provides grants to correct conditions that threaten health or safety;

The Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants and loans for construction and rehabilitation;

The Homeless Housing Assistance Program, which provides grants and loans for construction and rehabilitation, and

The Public Housing Modernization program, which provides grants for urgent public housing improvements.

So while affordable housing is tomorrow's goal, rent protection is today's necessity. Losing it means a massive exodus of the middle class from our city, a forced eviction of millions that would threaten to destabilize the downstate region.

Until we overcome our housing shortage, the middle class must have the assurance of rent protection to maintain their homes, raise their families and contribute to a healthy, dynamic New York City.

Silver is Assembly speaker.