Tenant leaders do 'slow' burn

NY Post, May 14, 1997

Gov. Pataki yesterday called for all city apartments to be freed from rent controls when they're vacated -- spelling a slow but certain death for the city's rent-regulation system.

Thes pro-landlord proposal could decontrol 5 to 10 percent of the 1.1 million protected apartments each year.

Pataki fixed no specific date for ending the 54-year-old rent system, but predicted his plan would lead to an "orderly transition" out of rent control in a "few decades."

Tenant leaders said protections would be gone sooner -- in five to 10 years.

"Vacancy decontrol is the death of rent regulations," declared Penny Laforest, of the Queens League of United Tenants.

Under current law, only apartments renting for $2,000 a month or more are removed from controls if the tenant dies or leaves and there is no legal successor tenant. Only a tiny number are affected each year.

Pataki's plan for sharply accelerated "vacancy decontrol" -- although he never uttered those words -- comes the day after he proposed decontrolling apartments for renters earning $175,000 or more each year, regardless of their apartment's rental price.

The elderly or disabled would not be affected.

The current standard for deregulating units applies only to renters with $250,000 household incomes living in apartments going for at least $2,000 a month.

"What we are doing is putting in place a plan, if adopted, that would provide protection for 99 percent of the tenants ... and yet at the same time allow for an orderly transition, as I indicated, to a market system," Pataki told reporters.

"We think it's balanced, we think it's practical, we think it's fair, and we hope the Legislature would approve it."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) immediately rejected the proposal, calling it a "turkey."

"This is not a compromise by any sense of the imagination," said Silver, who favors continuing rent protections permanently without any changes.

"The governor has taken sides here ... the side of the landlords."

Pataki warned Silver that if he does not agree to reforms, the system could come crashing down June 15, when the laws expire if the Legislature does not act.

"He has to understand that if he refuses to move to a fair plan that he could jeopardize rent control for everyone," Pataki said.

Asked what will happen June 15, Silver said, "If there's no will, there's no way to avoid the expiration."

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Rensselaer) hailed Pataki's call to remove protections on vacant apartments, but complained it would not kill the system fast enough.

Bruno has proposed phasing out the rent laws in two to four years, except for the poor and elderly, plus vacancy decontrol and lowering the income level for decontrol.

"It could literally take centuries to deregulate the city," Bruno said. "Any transition must lead to a timely end to all rent regulations."

Pataki, Bruno and Silver each assigned their top legal aides to begin negotiations.

Landlord leaders said they were disappointed that Pataki did not set a specific date for rent protections to be buried for good.

"We've had it for 54 years and this looks like a prescription for another 100 years," said Dan Margulies, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord group.

"It would be a painfully slow process," said Jack Freund, executive director of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group.

Landlords feared Pataki's plan would provide an incentive for tenants to abuse the law to pass choice apartments to distant relatives to keep them under rent protections.

They chided Pataki for not seeking changes to "succession rights" by tightly restricting the circle of family members and others who can inherit apartments.

Relatives who now have the right to take over a protected apartment include spouses, lovers, children, and some step relatives and in-laws.

Tenant leaders predicted vacancy decontrol would prompt many landlords into harassing tenants into leaving so they could rent the apartments for more.

Copyright ©1997, N.Y.P. Holdings Inc.