Tenants' Rage / Rent control supporters mob Albany

Michael Slackman and Lynn Brezosky contributed to this story.
NY Newsday, May 21, 1997

Albany - Their signs vilified George Pataki as "Gov. Rent Hike," the big bad wolf, King Kong hanging off the Empire State Building destroying New York, and their songs ordered "hands off my home."

Thousands of rent regulation supporters converged peacefully in front of the Capitol's steps yesterday, warning that Pataki must keep rent laws alive or they will unleash their voting power to boot him from office next year.

Some threatened to start a rent strike next month; others told stories of how the fight had been picked up by housing-project residents, homeowners and even people in Suffolk County, where there are no rent regulations. People in the performing arts predicted the end of regulations would undermine New York City as the Western world's cultural capital. Senior citizens said they worried about being forced to live on the streets.

"The landlords pay all these cash bribes to the politicians, but they get all this money from rent," Manhattan resident Mark Williams said in lamenting the shortage of affordable housing. As a guitarist sang "leave my home alone," he held aloft a sign urging a "citywide general rent strike."

Emotions ran high at what was supposed to be a hallmark rally for their campaign. Tenants arrived in more than 160 buses to make the Capitol protest the largest in two years, though it fell short of the 15,000 tenant leaders hoped for. Police estimated the crowd at 3,000, but tenant organizers said more than 6,500 attended.

Republicans tried to paint the rally as a failure because the numbers fell short of what was expected. One landlord representative dismissed some protesters as union members and senior citizens with no connection to the issue but came because legislators with the power to fund their programs had organized the buses.

The gathering had hints of a political rally for Democrats. Candidates for city offices handed out flyers, and speakers bashed Pataki's Republican Party. On the Capitol steps, one speaker after another faced a sea of tenants with pink caps - "I'm a tenant and I vote," the caps said. A list of legislative allies supporting rent regulation was read out as those to be voted back into office.

Tenants' lawyer Kenny Schaeffer wore a tie showing King Kong atop the Empire State Building, but he had pasted a photo of Pataki's face on the gorilla. "He's trying to destroy affordable housing for all," Schaeffer said.

The fate of rent regulations, which governs rent controlled and stabilized apartments, has held up the budget because state leaders have failed to negotiate on whether to extend a major rent stabilization law, which expires at midnight June 15. Pataki has proposed vacancy decontrol, which deregulates apartments when tenants leave or die, and luxury decontrol for people who earn more than $175,000 for two straight years.

"The only person responsible for seeing that rent control is extended is Gov. Pataki - focus on him," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who has led the pro-regulation fight in Albany.

Pataki has said his plan is fair and has warned Silver that he risks the end of the rent stabilization law by refusing to compromise.

Later, Silver was short on details when he said he'd be willing to compromise if the Republicans endorsed millions of dollars to promote a housing program in the Assembly's proposed budget.

After months of threatening to end regulations, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) was described as unimportant by tenants yesterday because he was only Pataki's "front man."

"Our bill would protect almost every tenant that is in place today, and it would punish landlords if they attempted to force vacancy so they can decontrol," said Bruno, who acknowledged that the Republicans have not drafted a bill.

As he left his news conference, Bruno met two Long Island City tenants, Beth Bailis and Michael Poast. The senator seemed pleased when the tenants - after hearing the senator's explanation - appeared to understand for the first time they would be able to live in their loft as long as they like under his and Pataki's vacancy decontrol plan.

But when Bailis and Poast told him they were interested in the "big picture" and the future, Bruno told them, "Worry about yourselves. That is my advice."