In City's Rent War, The Minority Rules

NY Daily News, May 15, 1997
Val Orselli, a veteran housing advocate from the lower East Side, has no illusions about all the promises from Gov. Pataki and from the governor's real boss, Al D'Amato for a solution to the battle over rent controls.

Both say the elderly, the poor and current tenants would be protected from sharp rent increases through vacancy (or slow motion) decontrol. All the current tenants have to do is never move out of their apartments.

Massachusetts officials made similar promises to tenants in Boston and two of its suburbs when that state eliminated rent controls in 1994.

Last Christmas, Orselli visited his in-laws in Boston. The front-page story in the Boston Herald was about a 79-year-old North End woman who was being forced out of her apartment. The landlord, Cool Guy Radical Realty Trust, had jumped her rent from $89 to $1,100 a month.

Another tenant, Mary Costa, saw her rent rise from $222 to $1,200 after 42 years in the same apartment.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was so shocked by the number of such cases popping up all over the city that he publicly condemned what he called the city's "greedy" landlords. More than 16,000 tenants in the 80,000 units that were decontrolled have been forced to move, and most say they can't find affordable housing.

"That was in Boston," said Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez. "Here, we estimate vacancy decontrol would force 80,000 to 150,000 people out of their apartments."

Which is why Orselli, his neighbors on the lower East Side and thousands of other tenants are angry and eager to march on Albany.

"We started with one bus, then we added a second, now we're up to three," Orselli said yesterday at the offices of the Cooper Square Committee on E. Fourth St.

All over the city, final preparations are moving ahead for Tuesday's Tenant Lobby Day. With the June 15 showdown over decontrolling rents in 1 million city apartment units drawing near, tenants have a very simple messages for the politicians:

DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.

This is the most important legislative battle our city has seen in a long time. It involves the outright transfer of more than $1.2 billion a year from 2.5 million mostly middle and working-class tenants and their families to a tiny group of 25,000 landlords.

It is a flagrant example of a minority trying to impose its will on the majority without even a vote. Republicans in the Senate can merely allow current rent regulations to expire.

Rent regulations were instituted after World War II because the city had a critical housing shortage. We still have one. Controls end automatically when the supply of empty apartments goes above 5%. It's now around 4%.

Why are all these free-market people not talking about supply and demand, asks Lopez. "The answer is to build more housing," he said.

Lopez and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have already passed a bill to have the state use part of its budget surplus to subsidize the building of 20,000 new units a year for four years in the city.

But let's face it. Landlords don't want to end the shortage because that would force rents down. They want to keep the same number of units that exist now and drive up the prices.

A new study the city released this week claims that neighborhoods like the lower East Side and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, won't see any jump in the average price of apartments.

"Baloney," said Orselli, who sees studio apartments in his neighborhood going for $900 now. "You have to see all the yuppies willing to pay $1,200 a month today along Bedford Ave. in Greenpoint," Lopez said. "Rents here would skyrocket with decontrol."

While landlords cry the blues, nonprofit groups on the lower East Side have built more than 5,000 moderate and low-income units in the past 15 years. Orselli's Cooper Square group alone has developed 350 units.

"We charge $350 for a one-bedroom and $495 tops for a three-bedroom," Orselli boasts. "We've saved dozens of buildings, kept the neighborhood intact, and we don't make a profit."

The Republicans, forever railing against high taxes, have no problem grabbing money out of your paycheck, which never seems to grow more than 2% a year, and handing it to the landlords in huge rent hikes.

If you live in a rent-stabilized apartment, take the day off next Tuesday and head for Albany. The phone number for buses is (212) 695-8922, ext. 326. If you can't go to Albany, call Al D'Amato and tell him how you feel. His number is (212) 947-7390.

Remember, time is running out.