No Backing Down
Tenants mobilize; landlords rebut rent decontrol fears

By Merle English.
NY Newsday, May 25, 1997

On her devotion to preserving the city's rent regulations, Florence Fisher will not be moved - even if it calls for desperate measures.

"As a grandmother and mother I will lay my body down in the middle of the street to save my apartment so I'm not pushed out by some landlord wanting to make excessive profits," she said.

Fisher, a 62-year-old organizer for the Queens League of United Tenants, predicts public disturbances if city rent regulations are allowed to expire at midnight June 15, as Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) proposes for all but the neediest tenants. Even in Queens, with its predominant one-, two- and three-family houses, Fisher foresees turmoil.

"If they do vacancy decontrol, they're going to have chaos," said Fisher, referring to Gov. George Pataki's compromise proposal to maintain rent protections for all but the wealthiest tenants for as long as they stay in their apartments, and deregulate them as tenants voluntarily leave or die. "There's a group of people planning civil disobedience. There are courses being given in the city."

What Fisher calls home in Flushing is one of nearly 200,000 rent-regulated apartments in Queens, making up about 47 percent of all rental units in the borough. Many of the 477,000 people who live there are losing sleep at night as the deadline draws near, she said.

In Queens, where 24 percent of its nearly 2 million people live in rent-regulated housing, renters are not nearly as dependent on the laws as those in Manhattan are. Sixty percent of Manhattan residents live in rent-regulated housing. Queens landlords, who say people like Fisher are fomenting unfounded fears, figure Manhattanites will bear the brunt of post-regulation rent increases.

Still, Fisher said, renters in Queens and across the city fear the worst - sky-high rents they can't afford - even as landlords claim such concerns are unjustified.

"It's in their interest to generate fear and chaos," said Jack Freund, executive director of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 city landlords. "That's their game plan. They're scaring people needlessly. It's totally unjustified. There's no reason to think people are going to be out in the streets."

Freund said that vacancy decontrol would have little effect on regulated tenants in the borough, and that to suggest otherwise is irresponsible.

"I don't see it having a great impact on Queens," he said. Freund cited a recent study by the Rent Guidelines Board and another commissioned by his organization showing that citywide rents would increase an average of 4.4 percent. "Most of the increase would be in Manhattan, which could go up 15.8 percent. Queens would be 2.3 percent."

High-rent areas such as Forest Hills, Middle Village and Elmhurst, however, could have significant rent increases, "twenty percent or something," Freund said, "and Jamaica, nineteen percent."

Even that, he said, is a worst-case scenario, assuming a "tremendous amount of improvement, that all those regulated units come up to the same condition as the unregulated units . . . It assumes people are going to be willing and able to pay for improvements.

"The people who are getting the benefits and the big breaks from rent regulations are generally in Manhattan and happen to be wealthier, younger, in one and two-person households, and they tend to be white."

But Fisher said tenants are scared.

"None of us knows what the final outcome will be," she said. She noted Assemb. Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) "promised no compromise. We're counting on them not to change their position."

The tenants advocates worry that rents in Queens will attract Manhattan residents forced out by increases.

"People from Manhattan who can't pay $4,000 or $5,000 can pay $1,000. That's why we become very vulnerable," Fisher said.

Freund countered: "I don't think we're talking about $1,000 a month. There's a limit in the market to what you can charge. People are not going to pay $2,000 a month to live in most parts of Queens. If they have that kind of money, they're going to live in Manhattan. It's a common notion because of the history of tenant-landlord relations that every landlord is going to raise the rent sky-high. But that's not true. In many cases, the rents are close to what they can be. If we're talking about rent increases, maybe we're talking about a few bucks a month."

Fisher's organization is working with other tenants groups citywide to barrage legislators with phone calls and letters. More demonstrations and lobbying days are planned.

"We're going to force the issue to the bitter end," she said. "You've got people involved in the tenant movement now who never in their whole life thought they'd have to worry about their apartments."

Fisher is a tenant at Hyde Park Gardens development, a 746-unit non-eviction co-op in Flushing. Rents for apartments like hers, which are not part of the co-op plan, range from about $400 for a one-bedroom apartment to about $700 for three bedrooms, she said. Many residents have three generations of family living in the complex.

"We're a borough of renters," she said. "People like myself living here 39 years made the communities what they are. We send our children to the schools, shop in the stores, attend the synagogues. People become community-minded when they know they're not going to lose their homes and don't have to worry they won't be able to pay for it."

Continuity is a value that Barbara Buffolino, 40, shares. She wants to see a tradition similar to the intergenerational mix at Hyde Park Gardens maintained at the 750-unit Surfside complex in Far Rockaway, where she lives with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. Her mother and sister also have apartments at the waterfront development, where one-bedroom apartments rent for about $600, Buffolino says.

"We're concerned that apartments won't be available for my daughter or my grandchildren," she said. "It's really a community thing. We keep the community stable, and any change in that would destabilize the neighborhood."

For landlords, rent increases that could come with vacancy decontrol are not the only issue. They want an end to the battles with tenants in Housing Court, a separate goal they say is equally important. "It's having to deal with this whole system that can be a real killer for the landlord," Freund said.

Sal Crisasi, president of Crisasi Real Estate Inc. in Middle Village and a member of the Queens Real Estate Board, agreed. "There are people who know how to go around the system. They don't pay any rent," Crisasi said. He cited a Ridgewood tenant who he said is withholding $5,000 in five months' back rent while refusing to allow him to make repairs in her apartment.

"I sympathize with the tenants. I understand their fears that their lives are going to be disrupted with increases, but I don't know if that's going to happen," said Crisasi. He said, however, "We're living in the United States, where it's supposed to be a free society, but rent stabilization is like communism. The government decides what you should pay for rent."

Preparing for their final onslaught, the tenants groups will target Pataki, whose compromise plan includes vacancy decontrol; Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.); and state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), Fisher said.

Berniece Siegal, organizer for the Queens tenants league, had harsh words for Maltese. "He's got 36,000 rent-stabilized tenants in his district and he acts as if he doesn't even have one. But we have woken up his electorate, and we are sending a warning not only to Pataki but to those downstate Republicans that if you do not stand with the people of New York, you will fall."

Vicky Vattimo, a spokeswoman for Maltese, said Maltese would be "working for a compromise that will protect the people in Queens who are seniors, disabled and the poor and middle-class people who really need the rent protections. He's looking to protect his constituents," she said.

Harvey Valentine, a spokesman for D'Amato, said, "The senator said he has every confidence that the legislative leaders and the governor will come to an agreement that protects the tenants who need protection."

In a long-range battle plan, Fisher said her group, which coordinated bus-loads of tenants to Albany Tuesday for Tenant Lobby Day, will form a tenant union in Queens that will include tenants of unregulated apartments.

"We feel if we form a tenant union . . . we will have more power," she said. "We will be able to have a lobbyist in Albany, and they'll never be able to push us around again because the legislators will be courting us. We will never be vulnerable again."

Renting in Queens

Source: Queens borough president's office, New York City Rent Guidelines Board, 1993.

In the Boroughs

Source: New York City Rent Guidelines Board, 1993