Tenants' Apprehension Builds as Decontrol Nears

New York Times, June 15, 1997
NEW YORK -- Ella Spivey is precisely the kind of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth New Yorker whom proponents of rent control have in mind when they defend the system that has restricted rents in New York for a half century.

She has worked for 26 years as a teacher's aide in an elementary school. She raised four children in her apartment in LeFrak City in Rego Park, Queens. A widow, she is now raising three teen-age grandchildren by herself.

Mrs. Spivey pays $642 a month for her three-bedroom rent-controlled apartment, which would probably go for at least $1,000 on the open market.

If her rent were to increase sharply, Mrs. Spivey said, she would have no idea what to do or where to go. "There's a lot of people working two jobs just to pay the rent," she said. "Rent here can be $750 to $1,000. It's hard. You won't be able to eat."

With the state law that limits rents on nearly 1.2 million apartments set to expire at midnight tonight, Mrs. Spivey and hundreds of thousands of other New York tenants are watching with apprehension the debate in Albany, hoping desperately that regulations will be renewed.

So are countless other New Yorkers, who do not personally benefit from the rent system but who defend it as a way to keep elderly, disabled, poor and other vulnerable people in affordable apartments.

And as both Republicans and Democrats in Albany signaled in the last few days a readiness to move away from the brinkmanship of recent months toward a possible compromise, many New Yorkers said they were cautiously optimistic that the rent impasse would be resolved.

Interviews with three dozen people selected at random on the streets of Manhattan and Queens late last week showed that there was still strong support in the city for maintaining the core of rent regulations. Many people contended that without rent control and rent stabilization, New York would be inaccessible to artists, teachers and other middle-class and working-class residents.

The city would become a place exclusively for the very rich and the very poor, many New Yorkers said, and would lose the diversity that is its hallmark.

But there is also much ambivalence about the rent system. Many people said they thought it unfair, in principle, that landlords' revenues were restricted, and they said they would support removing rent restrictions on apartments with affluent tenants.

Some people also said they would accept changes in the law proposed by Gov. George Pataki that would allow apartments to go to market rents after current tenants left, but they were also concerned about unscrupulous landlords who might harass tenants to leave.

"There should be some compromise between the two sides," said Bob Romanoff, a doctor who lives in a cooperative apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "They can't throw people out of their apartments, but they can't allow wealthy people to have inexpensive apartments, either."

Monica Vincent, a 29-year-old rock musician, said that the city's diversity depended on the availability of affordable housing.

"For artists and musicians, New York is very expensive already," said Mrs. Vincent, who fled Manhattan's high rents a year ago for an unregulated $650-a-month, one-bedroom apartment with a roof deck in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. "I think rent control should be maintained."

But Mrs. Vincent's support for rent restrictions does not extend to well-to-do tenants. "Nobody who is making $100,000 a year should have a $550-a-month, rent-stabilized apartment."

Many people interviewed in Rego Park and Forest Hills in Queens, and in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side in Manhattan, shared Mrs. Vincent's conviction that rent control and rent stabilization were essential for maintaining New York's broad demographic mix.

"I think the life of the city depends on keeping rent controls," said Dr. Maxine Orris, an internist who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side. "You wouldn't have people walking down the street of all faiths, nationalities and colors -- and that's what makes New York unique."

For some people, the issues are intensely personal. Penelope Roach, who is 62 years old and teaches sociology at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., has lived for 30 years in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. She pays $550 a month for the two-bedroom unit.

"So many people like myself, who are teachers and professionals and who don't make Wall Street salaries," Ms. Roach said, "we won't be able to stay in the city without rent control."

Sandra Levinson, who has lived since 1965 in a rent-controlled apartment near Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, is also concerned about the outcome in Albany. Ms. Levinson pays more than $1,100 a month for her apartment. She said she does not know why her rent is that high; she paid about $200 a month 30 years ago.

Ms. Levinson, who runs a nonprofit center for Cuban studies in Manhattan, said she feared that any loosening of rent restrictions would drive her from the city. "I'm the kind of New Yorker that New York should want to keep," she said.

While the overwhelming majority of those interviewed wanted the rent law retained, a few people had a different view.

Jacqueline Carrero, who is 29 and trains bilingual teachers, favors scrapping most of the rent system. Ms. Carrero said there were too many inequities: affluent people with low-rent apartments, younger people or new arrivals to New York who cannot find a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment, older people who don't really need a subsidy but have one merely because they have stayed for a long time in one place.

Yet even Ms. Carrero, who lives in an unregulated apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, would retain rent protections for some New Yorkers. "If you're elderly or disabled, that's a different story," she said.

Whether the uncertainty over the future of rent regulations has affected the private market for apartment rentals or sales is unclear. Real estate agents offer widely different views.

Christopher Thomas, vice president and sales director for the Brooklyn offices of the William B. May real estate company, said that in the last week, one of his agents in Brooklyn Heights had worked with five clients who were tenants in rent-stabilized apartments. Each had begun looking to buy a cooperative apartment "because of their concern over the outcome of this thing," he said.

But several real estate brokers in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said that while there was a lot of discussion of the rent debate, no one had rented or bought an apartment because they feared losing rent restrictions where they currently live.

Patrick Lilly, a real estate agent in Manhattan, said he was not aware of any tenant who had bought or rented an apartment from fear of changes in rent regulations. Lilly said that many tenants of rent-stabilized apartments did seem to be looking at other apartments, just in case the system was significantly changed or even jettisoned.

Among New Yorkers committed to retaining rent controls, the last few days have required a substantial amount of hand-wringing.

"To do away with rent control and rent stabilization would put people in jeopardy of becoming homeless," said Kathryn Schutte, who received a master's degree last month from the New School and who will have to leave her apartment in university housing in two months.

"We have to protect the people who need it: the elderly, the poor and people like me, who just graduated," Ms. Schutte said.