'Flexible' Bruno bends on rent laws

By GREGG BIRNBAUM in Albany and ROBERT HARDT Jr. in N.Y.
New York Post, June 5, 1997

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno yesterday softened his rent plan, saying he hopes a kinder, gentler approach will jump-start talks on the soon-to-expire rent laws.

Bruno, who in December proposed nixing most rent protections within two years, unveiled a revamped program that takes 12 years or more to end the rent-control system gradually and does not touch the vast majority of tenants.

"Our proposal, I want to make clear, protects every tenant in a rent-regulated unit in New York City, except for the wealthiest people in the city," said Bruno (R-Rensselaer).

"I'm willing to be flexible," Bruno added. "The plan I am outlining today reflects a great deal of moderation from my original position."

The key difference in Bruno's stance is that he has abandoned his demand that rent laws be phased out in two years, four years -- or by any specific date.

The new Bruno plan would decontrol vacant apartments if there is no legal successor and would allow only immediate family members to inherit the units once the original tenant dies or moves.

Under vacancy decontrol, the rent-control system will wither and die slowly, as roughly 8 percent of the 1.1 million protected units are decontrolled each year.

Bruno's proposal also would lift protections for anyone earning over $125,000 a year -- a change he estimated would affect 100,000 to 200,000 renters.

It would also toughen penalties for landlords who harass tenants, and require rents be deposited in escrow accounts during disputes.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who wants to extend rent laws permanently, said Bruno's plan would make little difference in the negotiations.

"I don't think the situation has changed dramatically since yesterday as a result of a press release appearing by Senator Bruno, but I think there is a will on all sides to resolve the issue," Silver said.

"Vacancy decontrol is a stumbling block to that resolution," Silver added.

Mayor Giuliani said Bruno has "moved an inch, but he's got to move a lot further than that.

"I think the fact that he's beginning to move, at least that's hopeful," Giuliani added.

Gov. Pataki, Bruno and Silver met behind closed doors for half an hour to discuss rent laws, and their staffs were to follow up the negotiations later in the day. No progress was reported.

"We're talking, and whenever you're talking there's hope," Pataki said after the meeting.

Rent laws expire in 10 days, on June 15, if the Legislature does not act.

The Bruno and Pataki rent plans are similar. Their chief disagreement is over who should have the right to keep a rent-regulated apartment when the original tenant dies or moves.

Pataki wants to keep current succession rights for 24 blood relatives, in-laws and domestic partners, while Bruno proposed restricting the right only to children, parents or spouses -- and not to include gay partners.

Bruno said the GOP-controlled Senate will vote to approve his rent plan sometime between Monday and the following Sunday, when rent laws will expire at midnight.

Responding to critics who charge he lacks the votes to pass his rent bill, Bruno staged a show of support at the news conference announcing his plan. Several state senators from the Metropolitan area -- who were said to be wavering -- stood beside Bruno.

Some, like Republican Sens. Guy Velella of the Bronx and Nicholas Spano of Westchester, would not make a commitment to vote for the Bruno plan, but said they were there to pressure Silver to make concessions.

"Bruno's indicated that he's willing to negotiate, and that's what we're trying to do -- get Silver to negotiate," Velella said.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and Queens DA Robert Brown joined Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau in warning that the death of rent laws could lead to widespread harassment by landlords.

"There is a disturbing past record of harassment of tenants by unscrupulous landlords and the use of vacancy decontrol to force tenants out of rent-regulated apartments in Manhattan, Brooklyn and other boroughs," Hynes said.

Copyright ©1997, N.Y.P. Holdings Inc.