Tenants Rattle Rent-Controlled Cages

NY Daily News, May 20, 1997
Forget the Joe Bruno bluster. As thousands of tenants head for Albany today, nervous politicians know they'd better make a deal on rent control soon.

And neither immediate decontrol nor vacancy decontrol will be part of that final compromise.

Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver has made that much clear to Gov. Pataki and Bruno, the state Senate majority leader.

Silver, a Democrat from the East Side, is no dummy when it comes to math. With 2.7 million city tenants on one side and 25,000 landlords on the other, Shelly doesn't need a computer or a slide rule to locate his position on rent control.

The big question then is: What will the final deal look like?

In the past, compromises on these mega-issues resulted from backroom wheeling and dealing by a few key politicians. This time around, tenant groups have gotten more sophisticated. They have targeted swing legislators for intense lobbying and mounted an aggressive advertising campaign. They have even floated a few possible compromises through friendly politicians.

One of the tenants' friends is Assemblyman Vito Lopez, chairman of the Housing Committee. Lopez is practical and knows that making a deal involves a little give and take.

Pataki's so-called compromise on rent control is immediate decontrol for any apartment occupied by a family making more than $175,000, and vacancy decontrol for the rest. He also wants all tenants who have a dispute with their landlords in Housing Court to put their rent in escrow before trying their cases.

Part of the final deal, Lopez believes, will involve tenants conceding an expansion of the current threshold for decontrol.

Right now, any apartment with a monthly rent of more than $2,000 and with tenants earning more than $250,000 for two consecutive years would be automatically decontrolled. The final deal may involve lowering the income threshold to about $200,000 a year and lowering the rent threshold to perhaps $1,800 a month.

That's a major concession to landlords, something with which Bruno and Pataki can save face.

But Lopez and other tenant advocates are firm on two other issues. Any expansion of luxury decontrol must be accompanied by new affordable housing to ease the shortage in the city and by significant reforms in Housing Court.

And by reform, Lopez doesn't mean tenant rent deposits in escrow.

It's pretty obvious that Pataki has never been to Housing Court. It's the worst judicial zoo in the United States, maybe the world. A mere 35 judges heard more than 317,000 cases last year, some passing judgment on as many as 200 cases a day. The tiny, antiquated courtrooms in all five boroughs are jammed to capacity, while chaos reigns in the hallways. About 90% of the tenants most of them black, Hispanic or poor have no legal representation, compared with 98% of the landlords.

Housing law slicksters landlords or tenants without law degrees have become expert at manipulating the system.

That's why Lopez is proposing, in addition to more state money for new housing, funding to reform Housing Court.

"I would increase the number of judges by 50 and guarantee legal counsel to every tenant or landlord who can't afford one," Lopez said.

Last year, the state provided only $17 million to the city's Housing Courts, while giving the city's Civil Court, which heard only 197,000 cases, a whopping $41 million.

Lopez would take the money for Housing Court reform and affordable housing from the state's $1.6 billion budget surplus.

Pataki, on the other hand, wants to use most of the surplus for big residential property tax cuts just in time for next year's gubernatorial race. The problem is 90% of that tax cut would benefit upstate homeowners. But the bulk of the surplus came from taxes paid by New York City residents.

That's called Thruway robbery.

But then the people upstate whom Joe Bruno and the Republicans represent have always enjoyed beating up on New York City, while getting fat off the city's economy and taxes.

This time, though, the upstate Republicans blew it.

Joe Bruno screamed so loud he woke up every tenant in the city. He should have realized that's enough people to make any politician nervous.