Rent Fight Sharpens Up-Downstate War

by Craig Gordon, Albany Bureau Chief Michael Slackman contributed to this story
Newsday, June 14, 1997
Albany - Every now and then, a major issue comes along that demonstrates just how different the two New Yorks are.

Take this year's debate over rent regulations, slated to expire midnight Sunday, which has heightened tension between upstate and downstate.

The rhetoric on both sides sounds more like a Bronx cheer between fellow New Yorkers - New York staters, that is - than brotherly love.

Things went so far this week that one upstate Assemblyman, Republican Pat Casale of Troy, suggested that it was time to think about breaking off New York City as the 51st state. "It's not a personal thing with the people," Casale said. "It's . . . like a different culture down there."

This latest upstate-downstate skirmish got its start when a senator from upstate, Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) led the charge to end rent regulation "as we know it" - a move that would affect 1.1 million apartments in the state, mostly in the New York metropolitcan area, including Nassau County.

Bruno's position led one Manhattan man to organize a boycott of upstate products, from Kodak film made in Rochester to homegrown apples, made in the districts of upstate senators who vote against rent laws. The man, Neile Weissman, said a number of community boards in the city went along, even though Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, two staunch rent law defenders, criticized the effort, saying that it needlessly pitted city folks with their upstate counterparts.

Still, upstate-downstate tensions have been a part of New York state's history pretty much since the start - in fact, they go all the way back to the 1600s when the British settled in what is now New York City while the Dutch migrated to more outlying regions upstate.

And politicians have fanned those flames for years, on either side of the city line. But it's rare that an issue is perceived so specifically as a city issue that it brings those long-simmering tensions so visibly to the surface as the rent debate has. "It's always been there, always will be there, and it's playing itself out in the form of rent," said pollster John Zogby, whose firm is in Utica.

With tensions mounting on all sides, Silver, Bruno and Gov. George Pataki met Friday for hours behind closed doors, hoping to negotiate a settlement. Though all sides said it was a positive sign they had been speaking for so long, they acknowledged it remains possible a deal will not be reached by the Sunday deadline and the laws will expire. Negotiations resume Sunday morning.

"We've tried all day. We've had serious discussions. But we have to recognize we're not there. There are serious differences," said Pataki, who also announced he will issue an executive order today that is aimed at protecting tenants from harassment if the laws lapse.

Tenants groups have accused landlords and Republicans who are fighting to end rent regulations for about 1.1 million apartments across the state of demonizing city residents, mainly by portraying them as wealthy and pampered with incomes are far above the state's average but who still get this special "break."

Tenants groups said Bruno sent a mailing this month referring to some living in rent-regulated apartments as "many millionaires and celebrities living mostly in Manhattan."

Republicans and landlords have denied any effort to turn this into a city-suburb battle, but portray the issue as a statewide question of housing policy where they have legitimate philiosophical differences about how to deal with rental housing.

For instance, one landlords' group, the Community Housing Improvement Program, ran a commercial upstate last fall showing an example of how current rent laws would require a landlord to offer a lease even to a drug dealer - an ad that incensed tenants' groups who considered it unfair.

But executive director Dan Margulies considered it a fair portrayal of the problems with rent laws that upstate voters would want to know about heading into state Legislature election.

Still, Zogby said that for the most part, upstate residents haven't entirely focused in on the rent debate because it doesn't directly affect them. But one upstate Republican senator from outside Rochester, James Alesi, said he believes that would change quickly if problems with the rent law held up action on an issue his constituents care deeply about, Gov. George Pataki's proposal to cut local property taxes.

"When we start telling them, `Your property taxes are jeopardized right now because of this nonsense over rent control,' then they'll start listening," Alesi said. "You could create a civil war."