Lawmakers Mired In Debate on Details

by Craig Gordon and Katti Gray
Newsday, June 17, 1997
Albany - State officials who touted a last-minute deal to preserve rent regulations were bogged down in the details within hours yesterday and unable to quickly turn the handshake deal into law.

State lawmakers in both houses adjourned without a bill printed last night, as staff members continued to wrangle over details.

Both sides agreed that yesterday's delay didn't stem from what they considered fatal disagreements but merely the difficulties of nailing down the details and legal language.

The agreement, announced just minutes after Sunday's midnight deadline passed, is designed to preserve a five-decades-old system of setting rents for all but the wealthiest few of the 2.7 million tenants in regulated apartments, most of whom live in the New York metropolitan area.

In essence, the three-way deal involving Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders preserves existing rent regulations for the next six years on nearly all of the 1.1 million apartments whose rents are limited by the law. The only people with rent protections who would lose them are those who fall under broader ``luxury decontrol'' provisions, which would deregulate apartments where tenants earn at least $175,000 and pay at least $2,000 per month in rent. The previous income limit was $250,000.

The agreement gives landlords the ability to raise rents more than they can now when apartments are vacated, under a so-called ``vacancy bonus'' of 20 percent plus whatever rent increases are allowed by the Rent Guidelines Board, with additional increases on the least expensive apartments and those occupied for the longest time.

The agreement allows a family member to turn over an apartment for rental to a close relative or domestic partner once without paying the vacancy bonus.

The agreement also sets up stricter penalties for landlord harassment of tenants and exempts new construction of housing units from rent regulations in certain circumstances.

Yesterday, negotiators appeared to be stumbling on the language regarding when and for how long the expanded luxury decontrol would kick in, how many family members could pass on regulated apartments without facing higher rents and how tenants would put disputed rent payments into escrow accounts. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), whose call to end rent regulation ``as we know it'' touched off the contentious seven-month rent battle, said there were just a few sticking points. ``I don't believe any of these will unwind what we've agreed on, as long as we move forward,'' Bruno said.

For most tenants, the difference of a few days should be immaterial, because legislators have said they would make the effective date retroactive so that rent laws would pass from the old to the new seamlessly.

``I think the tenants are assured they're safe, the roof over their heads is safe, and if we take another day to hammer out that deal, I don't think there's any reason to be concerned,'' said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who had pushed to keep existing rent laws in place.

The outstanding issues didn't overshadow the fact that the legislators appeared to have worked out a compromise on one of the most contentious issues to hit the Capitol in some time - and one that had crowded out serious work on just about everything else on the legislative agenda. That includes talks toward a new state budget that was due two months ago, Pataki's property tax cut proposal, welfare reform and whether to extend the law governing cameras in the courtroom.

The issue came to a dramatic conclusion early yesterday morning, when after a full day of off-and-on negotiations that went right to the deadline and a little beyond the three sides announced a deal. It took another two hours for the three bleary-eyed negotiators - Pataki, Silver and Bruno - to troop separately into the Capitol's Blue Room starting at 2 a.m. to announce sketchy details, which were boiled down into a two-page agreement.

Despite the disagreements remaining, politicians on both sides declared victory yesterday. Silver said the deal preserves rent regulations for the next six years and provides a way for working-class and middle-class New Yorkers to afford apartments in the city, an issue he has said meant nothing less than the very survival of the downstate region.

Pataki said the deal accomplished the main elements of what he had been seeking all along - a way to protect existing tenants while making reforms that improve the housing situation in the city.

``The extremists on both sides are going to be unhappy,'' Pataki said yesterday. ``The vast majority of New Yorkers are going to look at this and say it does protect the system and yet it changes the system in a way that [provides] for greater housing opportunities.''

Bruno said the deal paves the way for the eventual end of rent regulations. Under current law, if more than 5 percent of the city's apartments are vacant, the rent regulations automatically are lifted. Bruno said this deal would provide incentives that would spur enough construction to get the city above that vacancy threshold.

But advocates on both sides saw it differently, with the head of one landlord group, Bonnie Haber of the Community Housing Improvement Program, saying Pataki had ``caved'' by not fighting hard to move toward letting the free markets set rents. Tenants said they considered it a major victory in beating back the most serious assault on the rent laws yet.

Julia Shields, Nassau County coordinator for Tenants & Neighbors Coalition and a rent-regulated tenant from Great Neck, said that while the present fight might have been won, she is bracing herself for what could emerge after the newly proposed law lapses in 2002.

``The six-year extension is great. But we have to stay organized and have a plan for when those six years are up.''