Who Is Apartment Heir? / Fight for right to `inherit' leases

by By Michael Slackman. STAFF WRITER. Katti Gray and Craig Gordon contributed to this story.
Newsday, June 12, 1997
Albany - For 10 years Leslie Blanchard and Miguel Braschi lived together in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, a gay couple whose lives were emotionally and financially intertwined.

When Braschi died of AIDS in 1987, the landlord moved to evict Blanchard saying his name was not on the lease and he wasn't legally married. But Blanchard argued he had as much right to stay in his home as a "traditional" spouse - and the state Court of Appeals agreed.

"The intended protection against sudden eviction should not rest on fictitious legal distinctions or genetic history, but instead should find its foundation in the reality of family life," Judge Vito Titone wrote for the majority in the 1989 precedent-setting decision.

Eight years later, the same issue has emerged as one of the most sensitive sticking points in the fight over the fate of the state's rent regulations. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) is pushing to limit the right to "inherit" a lease - called the right of succession - to immediate family members including spouses, children and parents. "I believe in democracy. I believe in free enterprise. I believe in people being able to pass on property that they own," Bruno said. "I don't believe in people being able to pass on property to heirs that they don't own, and I don't know where on earth that was ever invented."

So while the majority of attention has focused on Bruno and Gov. George Pataki's demand for vacancy decontrol - whether to let landlords charge market rates when tenants die or move - some lobbyists say the issue of succession rights is of more immediate importance.

"The danger with Bruno's position is that anyone who is not in a traditional family will lose their home if the person whose name is on the lease dies," said Paula Ettelbrick, legislative counsel to the Pride Agenda, a Manhattan-based group representing gay and lesbian interests.

Landlord representatives also see the issue as pivotal because, even if they win vacancy decontrol, it would take decades before apartments could be raised to market rents, they say, if the right to hand leases to non-traditional family members also continues.

"You have an asset which is this great apartment and nobody is giving it up if they have a shot at turning it over to somebody," said landlord attorney Robert Goldstein, who is based in Manhattan.

Half a century ago, the state Legislature crafted the first rent protections because demand for apartments outstripped the supply. Twenty years later, the Legislature expanded the law so that in all more than 1 million apartments in New York City and the suburbs were regulated. In the body of those laws, the Legislature guaranteed that a surviving family member who has lived in the apartment for two years or more has a right to assume the lease if the named tenant died or left.

"It is based on an old-world notion that a man signs the lease and a wife and children don't," said Ettel-brick, who noted that the court decision in 1989 expanded the scope of the law.

With the key rent laws scheduled to expire midnight Sunday, Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Bruno were cloistered yesterday for hours in private meetings discussing everything from budget issues to a potential compromise on the rent debate.

Pataki had planned to attend a $2,500-a-head golf fund raiser at the Meadow Brook Golf Club, in Jericho, but decided to stay in Albany for rentnegotiations when protesters made it known that one of the outing organizers is an advocate of vacancy decontrol.

"We have agreed that it would be terrific if we could get something three ways by Sunday night," Bruno said as he left a meeting with Pataki and Silver, expressing the first, if limited, optimism.

Silver, however, said: "Republican proposals are still unacceptable."

Negotiations will be suspended for the next three days while Silver, who is an Orthodox Jew, observes the holiday of Shavous.

While Bruno and Pataki agree on the need for vacancy decontrol - which Silver strongly opposes - they are at odds over the issue of succession. Pataki and Silver want to continue current protections. Bruno does not.

Like Bruno, landlord representatives say the court and Legislature created a system that has allowed rampant abuses.

Attorneys representing landlords talk about children who rush in to take over apartments from ailing parents or grandparents. Attorney Niles Welikson of Forest Hills recalled an instance five years ago when a medical school graduate moved into his mother's Manhattan apartment. He claimed he had lived there with her for the requisite two years. And when lawyers argued there was only one bed in the apartment, he said: "he was sleeping in the same bed with his mother," Welikson said.

The young doctor lost the apartment.

But tenant representatives say Welikson's story demonstrates that the current laws, if properly policed, do work.