Bruno - All Bark, No Bite

Newsday, June 17, 1997
In the end, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, the pompadoured bully from upstate, folded like a cheap street-vendor umbrella in a summer storm.

But before he did, he caused needless suffering for millions of this town's renters with his blustering, take-no-prisoners stand against rent control. He alienated downstate Republican senators such as Roy Goodman, Frank Padavan and Guy Vellela, who felt Bruno had taken them on a suicide mission and Gov. George Pataki agreed.

Bruno now becomes a toothless leader. When you play the power game, you better make sure you are holding all the cards. Leaders are expected to lead, not to fold. Bruno talked tough, but at the finish he was the Wizard of Oz, all talk and nothing else.

So not only did he enrage millions of voters on the most critical issue in this city since its near plunge into bankruptcy in 1975, but he may have handed the Senate Democrats a chance to overturn some of the downstate Republicans and capture the Senate.

So what do we do now? The will to build public housing and affordable housing is non-existent. William Eimicke, who was state commissioner of housing under Gov. Mario Cuomo from 1985 to 1988 and is now teaching the ``Politics of Public Policy'' at Columbia University, told me yesterday that the reason for this is that ``it takes a lot of money to build such housing.''

``The era of proactive government that we had under FDR and the New Deal or Nelson Rockfeller and Lyndon B. Johnson is over,'' says Eimicke, who was also deputy commissioner of housing in the Koch administration.

Eimicke says part of the reason the government pulled back from public housing was that some of the projects, in places such as St. Louis and Chicago, ran into big problems. ``One of the last public housing projects,'' he says, ``was Co-Op City in the Bronx, a Mitchell-Lama-sponsored project designed and built to give lowand middle-income tenants apartments they could afford.''

Co-Op City was built in the late '60s and the early '70s. It has been plagued since by the nightmarish problems of administering such a huge project. It has also faced accusations that, because it wasn't well thought out from the start, it destroyed the Grand Concourse, once one of the premier boulevards in a battered borough.

``Finally,'' says Eimicke, ``the city's fiscal crisis in 1975 meant there wasn't any money for public housing. It takes a lot of money to build a unit that the average wage earner can afford. You have all these costs from construction to financing to development. And so what do you do?''

Eimicke gives Gov. George Pataki high marks for turning Bruno aside and forging a compromise that seems acceptable to all but the radicals on both sides of the rent regulation issue.

Pataki averted a disaster in the making. I don't know of anyone who thinks it's OK for Mia Farrow to have a rent-regulated apartment or for anyone who earns a quarter-of-a-million dollars to live off the backs of taxpayers.

Those titillating stories of the very rich living behind a shield designed for lowand middle-income people became a lever for the landlords, who exploited that issue the way Ronald Reagan exploited the stories of ``welfare queens'' driving Cadillacs on the way to the store to buy groceries with food stamps.

How could it be that, in the midst of the Great Depression, Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia could engineer the construction of the first public housing programs such as First Houses on the Lower East Side, while now, in the midst of a Great Boom, the stock market a raging bull, no wars to be fought, we can't find a way to build housing in a city that so desperately needs it?

There are a few outfits - the New York City Partnership headed by former MTA head Robert Kiley is one that tries to building low income housing. But the 1,000 or so units a year they provide hardly make a dent in the number needed for the new immigrants arriving in Queens, or for the young who double and triple up to pay the rent, or for the elderly who are always living at the edge of disaster.

Still, let's rejoice today that a huge mountain of worry has been lifted from this city. Let's admit that Gov. Pataki reined in Bruno and gave us a compromise we can live with until someone with a vision and the money to make the vision a reality comes along.

We ought to thank Cardinal John O'Connor, who spoke on behalf of the tenants about the ``moral obligation'' to keep rent controls, and we ought to thank the ever-sour but sturdy Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for keeping his troops on the line until some of the Republicans came to their senses.

And I have no idea where Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was for the past six months. He has become the Claude Rains of New York politics, but, then again, oracles prefer the mountaintops to the mean streets below.