NYC Workers Flooded With Phone Calls From Tenants

New York Times, June 15, 1997
NEW YORK -- In a room usually reserved for coordinating responses to natural disasters, a phalanx of New York City workers assembled Saturday to confront a man-made crisis -- the pending expiration of state rent regulations. They tried to ease worries that seemed as intense as any stirred by an approaching blizzard or northeaster.

By late morning, the workers were receiving an average of 100 calls an hour from tenants wondering what would happen to their homes if the rent laws lapsed after Sunday night. The anxious and bewildered voices of many callers provided telling evidence of the impact of the prolonged dickering in Albany over the lives of city residents.

"The rent-controlled apartments are not going to be affected by this law," one worker, Elizabeth M. Marrero, told a caller who feared she would be evicted Monday morning if the laws expired. "You're OK for now. You're doing fine."

After she hung up, Ms. Marrero explained, "A lot of them are concerned about things that they don't need to be concerned about."

She and other workers said many callers did not understand their legal rights, and did not realize there was a difference between rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments. City officials say that even if the state rent regulations expire, tenants can stay in their apartments for the duration of their leases.

And they say the city has sole authority over rent control, and has already continued the regulations governing the 70,000 rent-controlled apartments, occupied mostly by elderly people. The debate in Albany, they say, is over the future of 1 million rent-stabilized apartments.

Still, no matter how many assurances were made, the callers often remained jittery. "People are very confused," said another worker, Hugh Stroud "They are very upset and very disheartened. They are not sure whether they are going to be put out by their landlords."

He paused to pick up a ringing phone, spoke in soothing tones for several minutes and then transferred the caller to a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society for more help.

"I am not only surprised by the volume of calls," he said. "I am surprised that so many people are getting misinformation. Whatever is being said has people in an uproar. Everyone is saying, 'How can this be allowed?' "

The scores of workers were from a range of city agencies and were supervised by the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, the same agency that handles the city's response to natural disasters or terrorism. They operated from a room on the eighth floor of police headquarters that was adorned with video screens, computers terminals and many, many phones.

At a news conference, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the vast majority of the callers were seeking information about their legal rights. He said there had been only a handful of calls from people accusing their landlords of harassment; the Police Department has set up a unit to investigate such complaints.

Giuliani, a Republican, has expressed strong support for continuing the current laws, siding with tenant groups and seeking to distinguish his stance from that of Gov. George Pataki and other Republicans in Albany who are fighting to weaken the laws.

As part of that effort, Giuliani ordered the Office of Emergency Management to open the command center. The workers were required to answer the phone with the greeting: "This is the mayor's rent stabilization hot line."

Giuliani spent much of his news conference outlining the legal protections that are available to tenants. He also maintained his attack on state officials of both parties for allowing the fight to drag on, saying tenants were suffering.

"There are people being held hostage here," he said.

Numbers that Tenants Can Call

With the deadline looming for the expiration of state rent regulations, the city is operating emergency information lines for tenants to report harassment by landlords, the mayor's office announced Friday.

The following numbers will operate daily, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., until the rent-control issue is resolved:

For general information, legal assistance and for tenants facing eviction: (212) 487-5858.

For complaints of landlord harassment, including illegal evictions, threats of physical harm, changing locks or cutting services like water, gas, electricity or heat: (212) 487-6633.

For emergencies only: 911.

The hearing-impaired TTY line is (212) 487-7010.

The state Division of Housing Renewal has also established a telephone line for tenants to report harassment: (888) 736-8457.