Deal's in Writing/Legislature passes hard-fought rent-control agreement

by Craig Gordon and Michael Slackman
Newsday, June 20, 1997
Albany - Resolving a bitter and divisive battle that had brought the state Capitol to a halt, the Legislature passed last night a bill to extend the state's rent laws for six years.

The Assembly passed the bill, 93-53, shortly before 10 p.m. The Senate followed suit less than an hour later, approving the bill 58-2. Pataki was in New York City, and his aides said he was expected to sign it today.

``It's been a very difficult struggle, everyone knows that,'' Pataki said. ``But it is a wonderful deal.''

``This bill is important for what it contains, yes,'' said Senate Minority Leader Martin Connor (D-Brooklyn), ``but it is also important for what it is not. It is not the end of rent protections.''

``It's a fair and balanced approach,'' said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), who had initially hoped the outcome would phase out the rent laws. ``I'm sorry to hear my colleagues talk about winners and losers . . . This was not about politics. This was not pandering to any particular constituency. This was about fixing something that needs and needed to be fixed.''

The late-night action came after four days of tense negotiations in which participants had grown weary and frustrated with the secretive process and the seeming inability of lawmakers to make good on a deal they announced in the early morning hours of Monday.

For days, Pataki, Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) haggled over a handful of complicated issues related to their plans for extending rent protections to 1.1 million apartments, mostly in New York City and its suburbs, including Nassau County. Though they announced a ``conceptual agreement'' Monday, many differences remained.

By the time the bill was completed, it maintained the core principles Pataki, Silver and Bruno had spelled out. It did not, as they promised, include vacancy decontrol, the system that would allow rents to go to market rates and be free of regulations upon vacancy. Bruno had insisted for months that must be in the final deal, and has taken tremendous heat for abandoning that position under pressure from Pataki and Silver.

The agreement did include provisions that will allow landlords to raise rents at least 20 percent when certain regulated apartments go vacant, and for the lowest-cost apartments and those that had been occupied for at least eight years. It also deregulated upon vacancy all apartments that rent for more than $2,000 a month and changed a formula currently in law that makes it harder to hit that threshold.

In addition, the agreement imposed strict new criminal penalties on landlords who harass tenants, and it deregulated apartments that are occupied by families with a household income of $175,000 or more and that rent for $2,000 or more a month.

After boasting of their victory over Bruno's push for vacancy decontrol, tenants groups yesterday were upset with some of the changes that were incorporated into the final bill. They did not, for example, support the change that will make it easier for landlords to push apartments into the $2,000-a-month bracket.

``The bottom line is the defeat of vacancy decontrol was significant but on the issues of affordable housing for low-income people and on tenants rights to force landlords to make repairs, this bill is inadequate,'' said Scott Sommer, chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a New York City-based tenants union.

Still, Silver said making it easier for landlords to hit the $2,000-a-month threshold was an important compromise toward a final deal.

The Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlord group in the state, said yesterday in a statement the bill is ``far from what is needed for the health of the city's rental housing market and the economy, but one that provides some long-needed reform and necessary relief for property owners.''

And Bruno, widely considered to be the one who gave up the most to reach a final deal, said, ``As time goes on, there will be a recognition that substantial changes were made in the system that's some fifty years old.''

After a seven-month feud, kicked off by Bruno's promise to force the end of the regulation system, Pataki and legislative leaders had brought the contentious issue to a dramatic close - or so they thought - in the wee hours Monday when they outlined the deal.

Then the lawyers got hold of it. And while the broad parameters of the deal were never in dispute, both sides dug in their heels on coming up with language that would regulate an enormously complicated housing system for 2.7 million people, extending the battle through most of the week.