Rent Control Could Shadow Pataki Into '98

05/15/97 Newsday

GEORGE PATAKI believes the political middle is defined by making all sides angry, he and his consultants have found it in the debate over rent regulations.

But if the anger doesn't dissipate, if it becomes a catalyst for middle-class or urban grievances against this ambitious Republican governor in a Democratic state, Pataki could find himself on very dangerous ground.

Pataki's positioning on rent control is poll-driven. It doesn't reflect his votes as a legislator or candidate. His plan's transparency, its effort to make him seem the great compromiser, is the one thing landlords and tenants agree on - that and the absence of a solution to providing affordable rental housing in the city and suburbs.

If I were a landlord and had contributed thousands of dollars to Pataki's campaigns, I would be feeling pretty ripped off right now.

Unless I house some of the handful of tenants earning between $175,000 and $250,000 (those who would quickly lose their protections under Pataki's plan), I wouldn't be getting what I thought I'd paid for. I wouldn't get the right to charge market rates, not for as long as two generations.

Pataki also would subject landlords to stiffer penalties - make me even a bigger target for my tenants - if a judge believed they'd been bullies. What will they do the next time Pataki leans on them for campaign contributions?

If I were a tenant in a rent-stablized apartment, I wouldn't feel a lot happier than my landlord. Even though I could will my apartment's protections to my kids, I would wonder why the governor allowed his hand-picked Senate majority leader to threaten my security blanket in the first place. I would resent the good-cop-bad-cop game between Pataki and Joe Bruno, from whom the governor wants to be seen as saving apartment dwellers. I'd be bitter that Pataki didn't have the guts to call his idea what it is, vacancy decontrol, which didn't work 20 years ago and is bete noire for opponents of rent control now.

Democrats hope not only tenants will be angered. Party leaders are spinning rent control as another Republican hit on the middle class, which remains a swing vote. These are the voters Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is after. It's why he always drones on about how local taxes have gone up and services down to pay for a state income tax cut.

It's why Silver's likely to let the June 15 deadline pass and hold out until the next state election.

Remember that one of the big reasons Pataki won was that voters in New York City fell asleep. The percentage of the vote cast in the five boroughs was down. In 1994, there was no single issue to bring people to the polls. In 1998, with rent decontrol and welfare reform and with other proposed cuts in programs, Pataki runs the risk of a surge in turnout below the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Those who see the pressure building up on the Democrats to cave don't understand how public opinion is formed. Although very little will happen to real people after the end of rent regulations, stories will focus on the few tenants unlucky enough to have their leases expire and face increases and on the landlords dumb enough to be caught muscling folks out of apartments.

The pressure will be to maintain the status quo. Thousands of people will stream to Albany and, unlike those who come to protest on welfare, a lot of them will be white and middle class. How many will picket against rent protection? Unlike welfare, who will vote for Pataki on this issue? A lot could vote against him, even sympathetic nontenants.

Yes, this is a complex issue; rent regulations may actually make it harder for many people to find affordable apartments. But try selling macro-economics to people fearful of losing their very good deal - and believe me, they will be frightened to death by the time Democratic campaign consultants get done.

What Pataki is gambling on is that, at least by next election, both the tenants and the landlords will conclude that the governor hasn't hurt anybody much - even if nobody is really better off.

On this he is betting his political life.