Down to The Deadline/Renters fear midnight's approach

By Merle English
Newsday, June 15, 1997
There is no need for panic and anxiety, landlords say, even as some of them join city agencies in setting up complaint hotlines and tenants prepare ``fight back'' strategies should rent laws expire at midnight as both sides fear.

``If the rent laws expire, the fight will intensify,'' said Jennie Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Council, a tenant advocacy group. ``We vow that we are going to beat back the landlord attack, and we're going to continue getting tenants to focus their anger on the governor, who is behind this scheme.''

With only hours to go before the deadline, tenants and their advocates are mobilizing for a major blitz on lawmakers in hopes of defeating proposals offered by Republican Gov. George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick).

Bruno favors ending rent protections for most tenants as they vacate their apartments, while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) wants to extend existing laws indefinitely for the 2.7 million protected tenants in the state, most of them in New York City.

Meanwhile, Pataki says his ``compromise'' plan ``ensures that every tenant except the wealthiest few who earn more than $175,000 a year will have the right to remain in their apartment for the rest of their lives.''

The governor's office sent mailings to some rent-stabilized tenants outlining his plan and informing them of ``a very tough'' proposed tenant-harassment law that would put landlords who harass tenants in state prison for 7 years and impose ``big money in fines.''

``There's been a terror campaign to try to scare people and distort the facts,'' said Mike McKeon, a spokesman for Pataki. ``The governor has the obligation to let people know the truth.''

But tenants contend that the plan amounts to vacancy decontrol and fear they would be subject to harassment from landlords and skyrocketing rents.

Hundreds of people from the five boroughs and Long Island will board buses in Manhattan at Columbus Circle to arrive in Albany this afternoon.

``We intend to stay there until the midnight deadline,'' Laurie said. ``We're going to continue our protest to try to get the governor and Bruno to drop the demand for vacancy decontrol and stop telling tenants as long as they have leases they are protected even if the laws should expire.''

A candlelight vigil is scheduled to begin 8:30 p.m. tonight outside Pataki's Manhattan office on Third Avenue.

And tomorrow, ``if they allow thelaws to expire, which we believe they will do,'' protesters will again be outside Pataki's office at 4:30 p.m., said Penny Laforest of the Queens League of United Tenants.

Although officials of landlord organizations said tenants needn't fear if rent regulations are allowed to lapse, the industry has prepared a plan to protect tenants that would be put in place instantly.

``To ensure that property owners act responsibly and to avoid confusion, we have established guidelines that will safeguard tenants and the existing system,'' Joseph Strasburg, president of the landlords' Rent Stabilization Association, said at a news conference at City Hall last week.

``While we do not, as an industry, advocate the expiration of rent laws, it is evident that this is the direction the state Assembly is headed,'' Strasburg said.

The association's plan would require landlords to proceed as if rent laws were still in place for their tenants.

Lease-renewal offers sent out before June 15 would be honored. After June 15, one- and two-year lease renewals would be offered to tenants at least 120 days prior to the expiration of their current lease and would adhere to increases set by the Rent Guidelines Board as if the laws were still in effect.

Jack Freund, the association's executive vice president, said the landlord groups have taken these steps to assure tenants there is no cause for alarm.

``There are some parties in this debate, like tenant advocates and Democratic members of the Assembly, who felt it to be in their political interest to create panic and chaos on this issue,'' Freund said.

``We thought it was important to let tenants and everybody else know there will be no chaos on Monday morning the 16th if the rent laws expire on June 15. Nobody is going to be forced out into the street. Nobody's rent is going to be increased beyond the legal limits.''

But, anticipating trouble, the Queens and Brooklyn district attorneys have made contingency plans. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes formed a Special Emergency Rent Regulation Unit that would respond to tenant complaints about harassment.

``This is a potentially serious public-safety problem,'' Hynes said.

He said the new unit would work with a Rent Stabilization Hotline Information Center Mayor Rudolph Giuliani activated yesterday.

If the laws expire, tenant advocate Laurie said, rent-controlled tenants in the city are covered by a law the City Council renewed in March and won't be affected. Rent-stabilized tenants in general, and those under rent control outside the city, are protected while their lease is in effect.

People who need to be concerned, Laurie said, are those whose leases expire September and October. But she said tenants in that category should already have been offered a lease renewal.

Fran Lucky, an organizer with the Housing Solidarity Network, said her tenant advocacy group will be ``on the lookout'' for tenant harassment.

She said tenants will demonstrate outside housing courts and accompany others to hearings, ``and they can be in the street when there are evictions.''

Who You Gonna Call?

If an agreement in the battle over the state's rent laws is not reached by midnight, rent laws affecting more than 1 million apartments in the metropolitan area will expire. Here's a guide to information and complaint hotlines.

Tenants

-- Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office will staff an emergency phone bank to answer tenants' questions at 212-487-5858.

-- Any tenants whose landlords threaten or harass them or cut off services may call the New York City Police Department Harassment Hotline: 212-487-6633.

-- Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has assigned a team to handle tenant harassment complaints. It can be reached at 718-286-6520, and in emergencies, such as physical injury or death threats, tenants and landlords may call the DA's hotline, 718-286-6580.

-- The law requires that renewals be offered to most anyone in New York City whose lease expires before Oct. 13. If a landlord has refused to offer a lease renewal, tenants may call the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court for assistance, at 212-982-5512.

-- The state Division of Housing and Community Renewal has set up a 24-hour, toll-free hotline to address tenant complaints, 888-736-8457. The division will also be staffing a line for questions and complaints during working hours at 718-739-6400.

-- The Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants' rights group, will have expanded hours and additional lines to answer calls. They are open all week after 1:30 p.m. at 212-693-0550.

Landlords

-- The Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlord group in the state, has asked building owners not to raise rents or evict anyone until the matter is resolved by lawmakers. The group has issued guidelines for building owners in the event of expiration. Any landlords with questions can phone the RSA at 800-924-3933.

- Compiled by Lynn Brezosky