ALBANY BRIEFING / A Report on People and Issues in the State's Capital / A Law With Impact / Will rent regulation change the face of Queens?

By ELLEN YAN & Katti Gray and Lynn Brezosky
New York Newsday, May 19, 1997

ALBANY - Penny Laforest says she has noticed the changing character of her Glen Oaks home in a 3,000-unit development on its way to total deregulation under years-old laws that allow vacancy decontrol in buildings that have converted to condos.

A senior citizen lives with her grandchildren. More tenants have roommates. People come and go.

They can't afford anything else, so they bring other family members with them so they can afford the rent, said Laforest, a tenant organizer and member of the Glen Oaks Tenants Association. There's more people moving in and out on a regular basis . . . It's bad in terms of PTA, school involvement, feeling a stake in your community.

Last week, when Gov. George Pataki finally unveiled his rent plan, it included vacancy decontrol, a system that would allow landlords of rent-regulated housing to charge market rents when tenants move out voluntarily, are evicted, or die. The fate of a major rent stabilization law, which expires after midnight June 15, has held up the state budget.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) said he supported the concept of rent regulation as long as there were limits on tenants ability to pass leases on to relatives; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said he opposed limitations. Silver favors rent regulation, saying it keeps housing affordable.

Many supporters of rent regulation say vacancy decontrol would change the face of Queens, which has an estimated 476,000 rent regulated apartments. Tenant groups predict large-scale displacement, with middle-class Manhattanites fleeing higher rents pushing into the ritzier parts of Queens and pushing out some current residents.

They're going to be displaced - people in my district who are mostly on fixed income, middle class, and senior citizens, said Assemb. Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills). Where are my people going to go?

Landlord groups say the makeup of the borough has been in flux for years and will continue to be reshaped by several forces, resulting in fewer buildings being abandoned if vacancy decontrol allows landlords to charge market prices.

Queens is such a diverse borough that to say one change in policy will have an impact in the borough - I don't see that happening, said Frank Ricci, director of governmental affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents about 25,000 city landlords. The impact is going to be slow and gradual.

Academics say the impact of vacancy decontrol would be a mixed bag likely to benefit the wealthy. Michael H. Schill, a law and urban planning professor at New York University, said Queens may feel less of an impact than other boroughs. Queens has a larger share of its population being homeowners, he said. But he theorizes supply and demand with a twist.

With deregulation, landlords would raise rents in places such as Bayside, Bellerose, Rosedale and Little Neck, parts of Queens likely to attract upper-income earners and the middle class, said Schill, director of NYU's Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy in the School of Law.

The higher rents would force some current tenants to move out, creating an increased supply of housing for the middle class, he said. Because of the increased supply and the competition among landlords for tenants, rents would likely fall for higher-income residents, Schill reasoned.

But the less-affluent would compete with lower-income residents for affordable housing, and demand would outpace supply, making rents rise, he said.

According to tenants, those displaced might be jockeying for housing with immigrant groups along the 7 Corridor, the route of train line 7, said Martin Brennan, campaign coordinator with the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, which represents about 20,000 tenants. One of the great fallacies that landlord groups perpetuate is that this is going to increase housing, he said.


KOCH ON RENT: Now that he's no longer living in a rent-stabilized apartment, former New York Mayor Ed Koch is weighing in on the rent-regulation debate. Last week, Koch blasted his own Democratic Party leaders for insisting that rent laws remain intact and commented on Republican Gov. George Pataki's middle-ground approach.

The key is to protect current tenants and their families, Koch said. The governor's proposal does exactly that . . . Further, rent stabilization was never intended to permit wealthy people to enjoy cheap rents.

CASTRO'S RUNNING?: Long Island's own Bernadette Castro, sofabed queen-turned-political appointee, kept a hectic pace last week in her duties as state parks commissioner. On Monday, she dedicated a sign designating the North Shore's Caumsett State Park a historic site. Tuesday, she presented preservation awards in Albany. And the next day there was the dedication of an old Norwich railroad station.

Sound like a campaign?

Castro has been identified as a potential running mate for Gov. George Pataki, who has dropped Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross from his next ticket. Before Castro lost her first political race by a landslide to U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in 1993, she'd made her political name as a big-dollar donor to the GOP.

HARVEY'S HAPPY: Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg's (D-Long Beach) dream to have a flag in every classroom is a step closer to being realized. Angered when he found that many schools had students say the Pledge of Allegiance while saluting a flag decal, Weisenberg sponsored a bill that passed the Assembly and was unanimously approved by the Senate earlier this month. If Gov. George Pataki's signs it, it will become law. The bill calls for donations to pay for flags.

HARVEY'S ANGRY: Weisenberg, who raised a severely disabled son and taught special education for more than a decade, was on the verge of tears recently as he attacked plans by Pataki to cut $18 million, or nearly 25 percent, of a $70 million program to provide services to young children with disabilities.

Whether a child may have a broken body or a diminished brain, that child is still human, Weisenberg said.

Federally mandated since 1992, some 26,000 infants and toddlers have received hearing, speech, physical and occupational therapy from the program. State Health Department spokesman Robert Hinckley said New York was among the country's most generous and that imposing statewide eligibility guidelines and evening out the level of services was fiscally prudent.

-Katti Gray and Lynn Brezosky

How They Voted

Lawmakers first order of business after a two-week vacation was passage of a six-week budget extender allowing the state to pay its bills in the absence of a real budget. It passed in the Senate 50-6 and in the Assembly, 135 to 6. Assemb. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), the sole no vote among Long Island and Queens members in both houses, said the extension ran counter to the Legislature's obligation to pass a budget by April 1.