Rent Accord: Just Another Albany Deal

New York Times, June 17, 1997
NEW YORK -- For many in this city, it will remain an eternal mystery how it is that three politicians in Albany get to decide in secret the fate of 2.7 million New Yorkers living under rent regulations.

Where, in the so-called rent "debate," were the hundreds from the Legislature and executive branch -- not to mention nongovernment experts -- who might actually know a thing or two about whether rent restrictions are New York City's salvation or its ruination? Not anywhere near the closed room where the three lords of Albany struck their bargain early Monday.

"I think it was a terrible lack of leadership that terrified millions of people unnecessarily," New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone said, singling out Gov. George Pataki for having acted more "like another legislator rather than governor."

Well, that's Albany, those in the political know respond to those of us who fail to appreciate the process' charms. No matter how complicated or crucial the issue, a tiny band of leaders meets behind doors, wheeling and dealing with Kabuki-like predictability until they have had enough. Silly us, not understanding how it works.

What the city's rent system needed and deserved was no less than a thoughtful re-examination by a commission of specialists, Cardinal John O'Connor had admonished. Instead, the padrones produced a dead-of-night compromise that left existing structures largely intact while threatening, in the long run, to raise rents significantly for many apartment dwellers. In short, though the subject touched the very fiber of New York, it was just another Albany deal.

"To do it rather quietly with just three people negotiating it over a period of 14 hours is not the handbook way of governing," Vallone, who is thinking of running for governor, said in the understatement of the day.

Maybe resentments would have flared less if New Yorkers could believe that they had put their future in the hands of the three wisest men ever to run the state. Maybe. But probably not, because the problem was not so much the sagacity of Pataki; Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader, and Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, as the political system itself.

When the rent fracas began six months ago, it was proposed in this space that thought be given to an issue that had not been raised in a while: statehood for New York City. Not that it was a realistic idea, then or now. But it holds enormous appeal for many New Yorkers who cannot understand why their fate on vital matters lies with upstate lawmakers, some of whom, without a trace of irony, raise their fists against welfare for New York City while keeping palms wide open for farm subsidies.

"We have the least home rule of any major city in the country," said Esther Fuchs, a political scientist at Barnard College. "We can't even decide an issue like residency requirements for city employees. We pay so much in taxes and then have so little control over our political destiny."

Many New Yorkers mistakenly view Albany as being just sort of out there somewhere, no more a part of their lives than Sarajevo. Relatively few can name their assemblyman or state senator. Even fewer are aware that the city must go hat in hand to Albany to get almost anything of consequence done.

The mayor and the City Council want to slash the city tax on clothing? Albany must first say yes -- and the only concern many there have is the effect on suburban counties. The mayor and the City Council settle on a budget in harmony and almost a full month early? That's fine. But they still do not know if their revenue assumptions will hold up because Albany, despite having a $1.4 billion surplus to play with, is its usual eternity late in passing a state budget.

No wonder that the handling of the rent issue exasperated New Yorkers of all political stripes. Back to Vallone: "The means used here was to terrify and hold hostage millions of people. That is simply not the right way to govern."

The good news, some argue, is that Albany's ways were exposed in a glare of publicity that they rarely receive, especially on television. New Yorkers have suddenly been mobilized to grass-roots action to a degree not seen in years.

"This has made them realize Albany's relevance," said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center. "Albany has always benefited from not having any attention paid to it."

The question is whether that focus will hold. Long attention spans are not conspicuous in either politics or the news media.