Tenants Remain Skeptical

by By Dan Janison, Rose Kim and Eric Rimbert
Newsday, June 16, 1997
Gerry Monigan contributed to this story.

New York - After months of anxiety, fear and anger, city tenants last night were hard pressed to accept the fact their nightmare had been averted.

As midnight came and went, apparently marking the expiration of rent-control laws, nearly 500 demonstrators who had gathered for a candlelight vigil outside Gov. George Pataki's New York City office came alive with a defiant resolve. Loudly, they vowed to continue their protest.

Shortly after the witching hour, however, word began spreading that leaders in Albany had agreed on a new bill, but based on early comments by Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), it was unclear what was contained in the agreement. Demonstrators sagged into a wait-and-see attitude.

``I think we're being toyed with,'' said Fran Luck, an organizer with Housing Solidarity Network. ``If we don't form an aggressive, militant tenant movement that goes on the offensive, any victory will be meaningless. The landlords will come back again and again.''

Organziers told the crowd no matter what happened, no matter what they heard, they must stay organized. They urged tenants to form networks with their neighbors and maintain solidarity if the new bill failed to provide adequate protection against landlord abuses.

``People are here to let Governor Pataki know that he's not fighting hard enough for the tenants,'' said organizer Jean Hills at Pataki's office on Third Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets.

Organizers distributed signs with slogans such as, ``Gov. Pataki: Tenant Enemy Number One.'' Passing cars occasionally honked their horns in support.

About 30 police officers gathered on the outskirts of the crowd.

Meanwhile, more than 3,100 calls had streamed into city hotlines during the weekend, many from tenants needing assurance that the expected expiration of rent laws wouldn't result in their imminent eviction.

``Essentially, it's people who have been concerned about what happens in the morning,'' said Jerry McCarty, assistant director at the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, standing at a police headquarters phone bank.

``Am I going to be thrown out of my apartment?'' was the typical question, he said, with the standard reply, ``No, don't panic . . . Basically, we're hearing anxiety and fear.''

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who toured the hotline office yesterday, said, ``The leaders in Albany should feel a tremendous amount of pressure to get this resolved.

``This is not the right thing to do to people. It's an unfortunate way to carry on negotiations, where people who are going to be harmed are held hostage. It's the most unfortunate part of the negotiations.''

Of 3,166 calls to OEM and other city agencies by 5 p.m. yesterday, 295 went or were directed to the Police Department alleging landlord harassment, said OEM director Jerome Hauer. Only 23 of those complaints resulted in a patrol car responding, and most of these were called ``unfounded.'' A handful were referred to landlord / tenant court, OEM officials said.

By midafternoon, the OEM hotline alone logged 389 calls from Queens, 341 from Brooklyn, 787 from Manhattan, 124 from the Bronx and eight from Staten Island, the office reported.

From the site of the vigil on the East Side, one of his Democratic challengers for mayor, Ruth Messinger, said Giuliani was failing to persuade fellow Republicans to protect tenants, then trying to ``distance himself'' from the process.