No Final Vote Yet On Rent Rules

by Craig Gordon
Newsday, June 18, 1997
Albany - For a second day state lawmakers were unable to complete work on new rent regulations yesterday as negotiators still couldn't turn the conceptual agreement announced early Monday into a final one.

After a nearly two-hour meeting last night, Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders said they hoped their counsels could resolve the final sticking points in time to pass a bill today but weren't sure that would occur.

"There's no reason why it can't be, but that's not to say that it will be. It depends on whether the lawyers can work out all these details," Pataki said.

The conceptual agreement announced early Monday is designed to protect rent limits on virtually all of the 1.1 million apartments that fall under the rent laws, most of them in and around New York City, including Nassau County.

The deal would extend existing rent regulations for six years while removing rent limits on some high-income tenants and allowing landlords to raise rents at least 20 percent when some apartments become vacant.

But for all the effort to nail down the details yesterday, it appears almost certain that the Legislature won't have the final word on at least one of the trickiest issues, which many expect ultimately to be decided in the courts.

That issue - considered to be one of the stumbling blocks to a deal - involves the question of when tenants would be required to deposit rent payments into an escrow account while they are in disputes with landlords.

"This is no secret - we'll sue," said Scott Sommer, chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, who called that aspect of the compromise "blatantly unconstitutional."

Under the old law, judges had discretion to require tenants to deposit rent into an escrow account while the dispute is adjudicated, but under the agreement tenants would be required to do so after they obtained two court adjournments.

Landlords argue that if tenants are not required to set aside rent, it is almost impossible to collect it later even if the courts decide in the landlords' favor, creating an economic hardship, particularly for small landlords. Tenants groups say tenants shouldn't have to give up their fundamental right of withholding rent in a serious dispute with a landlord.

The delay in passing the final bill hasn't caused any obvious problems so far, officials on both sides say, because the bill will be retroactive.

Dan Margulies, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Project, said the group has been hearing from landlords unsure whether to start charging the new, higher rents called for in the compromise. CHIP's advice: Try to wait a few days before signing the lease, but if that isn't possible, sign it based on the old law, rather than assuming the deal will stick. "It's not the law now. It's headlines," Margulies said.

Jeanne Kippel, housing commissioner for Great Neck Plaza, said she believes tenants would start to get edgy if the talks drag on. "We know that there's a deal, but it's not signed, sealed and delivered, so at some point in time, we're all going to be nervous," she said.