Protest Caps Rent-Control Debate / Advocates to convene in Albany

New York Newsday, May 20, 1997

ALBANY - While the rest of the legislative agenda has been put on hold, the battle over rent regulation has escalated in the past week, with the debate so far to be capped - literally - by a huge protest today.

Wearing bright pink caps saying, "I'm a tenant and I vote," thousands of rent-regulation supporters are expected to surge into the capital and carry signs criticizing Gov. George Pataki, who proposed vacancy decontrol, which deregulates apartments once the tenant dies or moves out. They want to preserve rent regulations for 1.1 million households and extend a major rent stablization law, which covers the vast majority of regulated residences and expires at midnight June 15.

"It'll put the spotlight on George Pataki and put his decontrol plan center stage in the debate," promised Billy Easton, executive director of the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, which represents more than 20,000 households.

Rally organizers yesterday ran around picking up canopies, tables and other equipment for the demonstration, to be held on the steps of the Capitol. Some began delivering copies of "Out of Control," a historical guide that rolled off the presses Sunday, to reporters and legislators yesterday.

"It's not going to change any votes, but I welcome their visit and that's what democracy is all about," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), who has lead the fight to end rent regulations since December.

But tenants hope the show of force will pressure Pataki, whose announcement of support for vacancy decontrol sparked a flurry of other announcements recently. It started last week with Pataki breaking his silence on rent regulations Monday and continued with debates that encompassed tenants' rights to transfer leases and time lines for ending regulations, more protection for senior citizens. It ended Friday with Bruno , a regulation opponent, saying tenants ought to be "banging" on the door of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who refuses to even consider vacancy decontrol.

But Silver said Pataki and Bruno have not retreated much from their calls to end rent regulation. "Who's there to negotiate? I will not negotiate in the wind," he said.

Bruno commended Pataki's vacancy decontrol plan for the most part, but last Wednesday, he suggested cutting out gays and unmarried partners from succession rights to rent-regulated apartments. Those rights allow people who live with a tenant for at least two years to keep that apartment if the person with the lease leaves or dies.

The senator also retreated by ending his call to phase out regulations within four years. Without setting a time line, he advocated a "gradual" end to rent regulations but said vacancy decontrol would take too long.

Then during a Thursday radio talk show, the governor told a caller he was considering allowing the elderly to keep rent regulations if they move from a bigger apartment to a smaller one in the same building. But yesterday, he said he did not support such a concept.

Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, blasted by the Republicans for not being a team player, recently sided with tenants and said she'll be attending the rally.

The key figures in the debate have been taking every opportunity to paint themselves as the "moderate" or the "reasonable" ones, open to negotiation on the issue.

"Clearly with the governor coming out, it changed the entire dynamics," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents about 25,000 New York City landlords. "Before the governor came out, it was Joe Bruno being the lighting rod and Silver doing nothing. It's now the governor who's the lighting rod."