New lease on life for rent laws

Post Correspondents
New York Post, May 19, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Gov. Pataki yesterday proposed extending rent protections for "the rest of their lives" for 99 percent of all tenants in rent-regulated apartments.

Saying his plan will "save rent control," Pataki called for continuing rent laws set to expire onJune 15 for all protected tenants -- except for those with household incomes of $175,000 or more annually.

So far, only units priced at $2,000 a month or higher and occupied by renters in households earning at least $250,000 a year have been decontrolled, under a 1993 rent law that impacted a few thousand tenants.

Pataki's change would deregulate only about 5,000 to 10,000 apartments of the 1.1 million that are now protected, officials said.

Pataki aides would not say how the governor reached the $175,000 figure or whether the rental price of the apartment would still be a factor, as it is under current law.

Pataki also said he favors new civil and criminal penalties for "greedy landlords" who harass their tenants, a proposal backed by both tenant and landlord groups. He did not specify the penalties.

"Rent control has always been there for those New Yorkers, and under my plan it will still be there for every senior citizen and every disabled person regardless of income, and for 99 percent of all tenants," Pataki said in an eagerly awaited statement.

"My plan to save rent control will ensure that every middle-class tenant has the right to remain in their apartments for the rest of their lives if they choose," Pataki added.

Pataki plans a news conference in the city today to release additional details of his rent plan. Pataki aides refused to comment on what would be unveiled.

State Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer), who has proposed abolishing rent control "as we know it," said Pataki's plan did not go far enough.

Bruno, who previously has vowed to let rent laws die on June 15, said "much more has to be done" and again called for an end to the rent-regulation system.

Bruno said, "We must have a gradual and reasonable transition away from rent regulations to an open, competitive housing market."

A key unanswered question is whether Pataki will offer any proposal on "vacancy decontrol" -- in which an apartment is lifted from rent protections after a tenant dies or moves.

Under current rent laws, only apartments going for $2,000 a month or more are removed from rent protections when the tenant leaves.

Pataki aides are studying ways to step up vacancy decontrol, which is considered the No. 1 goal of landlords because it whittles away the number of protected units each year.

Both tenant and landlord representatives said they believed Pataki would not push for additional penalties for landlords who harass tenants if he is not also planning to accelerate vacancy decontrol.

Tenant advocates are fearful that under an expanded decontrol program, landlords would use any means they could to drive tenants out so that they could charge more for the units.

"All fingers are pointing in the direction of vacancy decontrol," said Billy Easton, executive director of the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition. "There's no other reason to propose anti-harassment laws."

"We still don't have the full picture yet," said Dan Margulies, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord group. "Nothing he has said so far is inconsistent with vacancy decontrol."

Pataki's plan, outlined in a nine-paragraph statement, shocked landlords who have been pushing for elimination of the rent-protection system and who have been among Pataki's biggest political and financial backers.

"It basically does nothing," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group. "There's nothing here worth commenting on."

Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who backs extending all rent protections, called Pataki's proposal "one half of a plan."

"The numbers released today in his nine-paragraph statement are simply unrealistic in today's economy," Silver said, referring to the $175,000 income standard for decontrol.

Pataki unveiled his rent plan after months of attack from Silver and tenant advocates for ducking the issue.

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