Suspense Grows Over Rent Law

by Ellen Yan
Newsday, June 8, 1997
Albany - As anyone who's ever seen a few good Hollywood dramas knows, the tension builds as events move inexorably toward a climax, and that is what's happening now, seven days before a major rent regulation law expires if someone doesn't blink or budge.

Tenants have published their "Showdown '97 Calendar of Coming Events" for the week, including a candlelight vigil and demonstrations. The largest landlord group has been considering a news conference on proper etiquette for real estate owners if a major rent stabilization law expires next Sunday. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), trying to improve the landlords' lot, has warned he won't pass any temporary extension of the law. Gov. George Pataki, aiming to be the hero in the story, has proposed vacancy decontrol, which would allow landlords to charge market rates once tenants move or die. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), prepared for the law to go down in flames, balks at negotiating a compromise with vacancy decontrol on the table.

"You got an element of drama and high theater," said Scott Sommer, head of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, which represents tenants.

About 2.7 million tenants live in about 1.1 million rent-regulated households, mostly in New York City and its suburbs including Nassau County. The regulations dictate how much a landlord can charge and they allow tenants to transfer their apartments to relatives.

All sides say they favor a compromise on rent regulations, yet their scripts seem set in concrete.

Bruno, who announced in December he would fight to end rent stabilization, last week outlined a vacancy decontrol plan. He wants to limit succession rights to an apartment to the immediate family, including spouses, their parents and children. Apartments with tenants who make more than $125,000 would be deregulated. During disputes, tenants would have to place their monthly rent in escrow pending a court decision. He agrees with Pataki's proposal for criminal charges against landlords who try to harass tenants into leaving.

Pataki also favors decontrol and escrow, but he wants to preserve the current succession rights. His luxury decontrol plan would apply to tenants making more than $175,000 a year.

Silver rejects vacancy decontrol because it would eventually end regulations. He has said he would be willing to compromise if Pataki and the Senate agree to allocate millions of dollars to housing initiatives passed by the Assembly.

Tenants have been fighting vacancy decontrol and the escrow accounts, which they say would rob renters of the power to force landlords to fix problems by withholding rent. Landlords support vacancy decontrol, having decided they can't win an end to regulations.

No one wants to give up strategy by revealing which compromises he'd make, but all sides say luxury decontrol will be the first agreement. A few lawmakers have discussed keeping regulations but giving the nod to escrow accounts and allowing landlords to lease available apartments for the same rent as the most expensive regulated apartment in the building.

Democrats have tried to pin the responsibility for rent regulations onto Pataki. A few Republican senators chafe at vacancy decontrol, but they haven't been able to budge Bruno.

Many expect the rent stabilization law to expire before a settlement is reached. The stalemate has pinched the nerves of tenants and landlords, and in some ways, the people most affected hold the least power to force a settlement.

"We're somewhat on the sidelines at this moment," said Joseph Strasburg of the landlords' Rent Stabilization Association. "Politicians don't necessarily give you what you want. They give you what they're willing to give you. They have to look like they're fighting for their constituents or ideals. That's why it's going to happen past June 15."