Swing Vote In Rent Wars

By Michael Slackman and Ellen Yan.
Newsday, June 5, 1997

Albany - State Sen. Serphin Maltese, who could play a pivotal role in the future of the New York's rent regulations, said yesterday he supports a plan that would let landlords charge market rents when tenants voluntarily move out or die.

With four Senate Republicans saying they want to maintain current protections, and two of them, including Frank Padavan (R-Jamaica), publicly breaking with their leadership, Maltese (R-Middle Village) could provide the key vote in the Senate to allow passage of a plan that includes vacancy decontrol.

There are 35 Senate Republicans, and 31 votes are needed to pass a bill.

Maltese made his comments when asked about Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's latest proposal for revising the state's rent laws. Bruno (R-Brunswick) outlined a plan yesterday including vacancy decontrol, ending regulations for households earning $125,000 or more annually and making it a crime for landlords to harass tenants.

"I have to see the full bill, but along the lines that Senator Bruno has indicated, I will support the bill," said Maltese, who has 40,000 regulated apartments in his Senate district, housing about 70,000 people.

Not all of the senators standing with Bruno said they support such an initiative. "I believe rent stabilization is imperative in terms of affordable housing in the city of New York," said Padavan, whose district includes 20,000 regulated units covering about 50,000 people.

Bruno outlined the specifics of his rent plan in a press release, not in legislation, and he met privately for about 45 minutes with Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). All three said that no progress had been made toward reaching a resolution but that for the first time in months there was, at least, a willingness to resolve the matter before the laws expire at midnight June 15.

"I believe there is now a serious effort to resolve the differences both on the budget and in rent control," Pataki said. "It is difficult. The progress, if any, is slo. But we are talking, and that is always a good thing."

The sides remained far apart on vacancy decontrol. Pataki and Bruno support the strategy - which they say would protect virtually all existing tenants - while Silver said Assembly Democrats are strongly opposed.

"I do not accept vacany decontrol as a way to conclude this debate, plain and simple," Silver said. "I think there is a willingness on all sides to resolve the issue. Vacancy decontrol is a stumbling block to that resolution."

Bruno, Pataki, Maltese and other Republicans criticized Silver as being intractable, saying he would be responsible if the laws do expire.

Bruno moved closer yesterday to the position laid out by Pataki, but there were still differences. Pataki proposed decontrol for households earning $175,000 or more and said Bruno's figure is too low. Bruno also sought to restrict to an immediate family the right of tenants to hand down leases from generation to generation. Pataki supports continuing to allow tenants to leave leases to extended family and unmarried partners. Both support requiring that tenants put rent into escrow during disputes with landlords.

Bruno insisted he was open to negotiations. "Are we flexible?" Bruno said. "Yes." The majority leader's flexibility is, in part, driven by the concerns of Republican senators.

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, representing landlords, commended Bruno, saying his plan "shows his willingness to compromise this difficult and emotional issue."

Billy Easton, the chief spokesman for the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, said: "Bruno's bill has the worst part of the governor's decontrol plan."