Weighing In On Rent Laws / Guv words suggest vacancy decontrol P> By Ellen Yan. ALBANY BUREAU
May 12, 1997 NY Newsday

Albany - Breaking his silence on rent regulation, Gov. George Pataki yesterday called for the wealthy to pay market rents and suggested he would support vacancy decontrol by advocating stiffer criminal penalties against landlords who try to harass tenants into leaving.

Pataki steered away from the more controversial decontrol debate in his news release but suggested it would be included in his complete plan to be released today by saying ``every middle-class tenant has the right to remain in their apartment for the rest of their lives if they choose.'' Under decontrol, rated low as an option by both landlords and tenants, landlords can't charge market rates for their apartments unless the tenant moves out voluntarily, dies or is evicted.

Timing his plan to coincide with Cardinal John O'Connor's sermon yesterday in which O'Connor described affordable housing as a ``basic right,'' the governor outlined elimination of controls for the wealthiest 1 percent of the rent-regulated tenants and creation of the new crime of tenant harassment. The issue has held up the state budget as political leaders clash over whether to extend the Emergency Tenants Protection Act of 1974, which expires at midnight on June 15 and covers at least 950,000 rent-stabilized households, the vast majority of the state's rent-regulated tenants.

If Pataki's intention was to find a middle ground between tenants and landlords, he fell short yesterday, both sides said.

Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, said the plan was a way to ``lop off pieces of rent protection one limb at a time,'' and a Queens landlord said it left out hope for small real estate owners.

``He would have no reason to call for a new harassment law unless he was preparing a proposal which he knows will stimulate a floodgate of landlord harassment, and that proposal is vacancy decontrol,'' Easton said.

In Queens, where he owns six rent-regulated units, Dragan Valjan said he couldn't see much compromise in Pataki's outline. ``That won't do any good for the small landlords,'' said Valjan, who also works as a bus driver and an interpreter. ``A large number of tenants aren't making $175,000. You're lucky if they're making $40,000 . . . I'm regretting I bought the stupid buildings. I can't make ends meet.''

Asked about expanding exemptions from luxury decontrol, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, ``Right now there is luxury decontrol, and I believe it's at an appropriate level . . . That may seem high to people outside the city; it isn't as high as it seems.''

The battle between landlord and tenant groups was launched about six months ago after Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) vowed to end rent regulations for all but the poor, sick and elderly, and to let the 1974 law expire. That prompted Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) to try to make rent regulations permanent.

Landlords want to end rent regulations, which they feel forced them to subsidize tenants who pay much lower than market rates. But without such laws, tenants fear, the number of affordable housing units would plummet.

Yesterday, Silver sarcastically pointed out that Pataki ``finally has weighed in with one-half of a plan'' and reserved comment until after hearing the entire plan. While Bruno applauded Pataki's plans for the wealthy tenants and unscrupulous landlords, the senator said much more is required for ``a gradual and reasonable transition.''

In his outline yesterday, the governor called for expanding luxury decontrol. Currently, regulations are lifted for those who earn at least $250,000 and pay at least $2,000 in rent. Pataki would lower the income level to $175,000 and do away with the rent minimum. He said only 1 percent of rent-regulated tenants would fall under the new salary threshold; currently 4 percent of such tenants make $250,000 and pay rents of at least $2,000.

Without going into details, Pataki also said unscrupulous landlords should be punished with new civil and criminal penalties. He warned them: ``Harass your tenants, and you will pay a price that far exceeds the few extra dollars you may collect from a rent increase.''

The governor faces a negotiating challenge in the weeks ahead as he tries to meld the polar stances of Silver and Bruno while steering away from the ire of landlords, who contribute to his campaign coffers, and tenants, who can withhold their votes from him in next year's election. Republicans and Democrats say they'll blame each other if the 1974 law expires.