Tenants threaten 'Capitol' punishment

NY Post, May 21, 1997

ALBANY -- Thousands of angry tenants from the city rallied yesterday at the Capitol to save rent protections, threatening Gov. Pataki with political payback if he does not back down.

Sporting pink and white "I'm a tenant and I vote" caps, the tenants heard speaker after speaker denounce Pataki's rent plan and demandthat rent laws set to expire on June 15 be extended unchanged.

Protesters carried signs reading, "Gov. Pataki: 2 million tenants are watching you" and, "Your future depends on how tenants vote." Other placards referred to Pataki as "Governor Rent Hike," "Landlord Pataki" and "Tenant Enemy No. 1."

Police put the turnout at 2,000 to 2,500 -- well below the 5,000 to 6,500 that organizers had predicted. Tenant leaders insisted the crowd was 6,500 strong.

Pataki and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer), who has proposed abolishing rent protections, said they were surprised more renters did not show up.

"I was amazed that there were so few people, because it is such an important issue," Pataki said.

The governor passed by the rally site before the protest began and had an impromptu meeting with demonstration organizer Billy Easton.

The two sparred over Pataki's plan for vacancy decontrol, in which an apartment would be allowed to go to market-level rents when the tenant dies or moves and there is no legal successor.

"Vacancy decontrol is the total elimination of the rent laws; it is the total elimination in four or five years," Easton told Pataki, according to a transcript provided by the governor's office.

"See, that is where we are very much in disagreement," Pataki responded. "I don't think that vacancy decontrol threatens any existing tenants' apartments ... If we can protect 99 percent of the tenants, I think that is a very fair system."

The key parts of Pataki's rent plan are vacancy decontrol, expanding luxury decontrol, and imposing additional penalties for landlords who harass renters.

In an unusual security measure, police restricted access to the Capitol during the protest. The precautions come after Bruno received death threats that he believes are linked to his rent-law stance.

The demonstration was peaceful and there were no arrests.

Mayor Giuliani did not attend the rally because organizers withdrew their invitation. Democratic mayoral candidates Sal Albanese and Ruth Messinger did show up.

The Capitol steps were jammed with politicians -- City Council members, state senators, Assembly members and even Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, who opposes Pataki's rent plan.

Speakers warned Pataki that tenants would not forget when they vote in 1998 if he does not protect existing rent laws.

"The governor has to realize if he doesn't concede on this issue, he is not there next year," Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Housing Committee, told the cheering crowd.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said, " cares more about a few of his campaign contributors than he does about millions of you," a reference to landlords who have donated funds to the governor'swar chest.

Silver's Democratic-controlled Assembly has passed legislation that would permanently extend rent laws.

Many tenants said upstate lawmakers like Bruno had no business getting involved in the rent-regulation issue, which they argued should be left up to city officials.

"I resent the fact that an upstate person can sit up here and decide for us in the city," said protester Gloria McKenzie, who lives in a rent-stabilized, three-bedroom apartment in The Bronx for $721 a month.

"Bruno doesn't know our way of life and, frankly, I don't think he cares."

Meanwhile, Bruno continued to modify his rent position, edging even closer to Pataki.

It appears the only major difference between Pataki and Bruno is over who can inherit a rent-regulated apartment when it is vacated.

Pataki favors no change in "succession rights," while Bruno backs it only for immediate family members for one generation.

Copyright ©1997, N.Y.P. Holdings Inc.