Veterans' Latest Front
Is the Rent War

New York Times, June 4, 1997

NEW YORK -- One thing worries me," reads an inscription carved into the glass blocks of the Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan. "Will people believe me? Will they want to hear about it, or will they want to forget the whole thing ever happened?"

Forgetting has not been easy for some veterans who gathered there recently. Many of them served in Vietnam and returned stateside to face a new front as they looked for a job and a place to live.

Some are still looking. Kelvin Murry, a lanky Air Force veteran with a deep voice and a calm manner, has lived in a veterans' residence in Harlem since 1992. Home is a 14-by-16-foot cinder block room, little more than a glorified shelter to him.

"It's transitional housing," said Murry, an unemployed steamfitter who still wears his hard hat out of habit and hope. "That's what I'm trying to make it."

With the future of rent regulation uncertain, Murry worries that he may never be able to afford a real apartment if the current laws are scrapped.

While the policy debate is filled with martial metaphors about battle lines and declarations of war against tenants, landlords and politicians, it rings hollow to those who saw combat in the bush and not in the Legislature.

Does anyone remember, Ed Daniels asked, that one reason for the extension of rent regulations in the 1940s was to help the thousands of men returning from the war? Is anything owed to their successors?

"You're getting rid of the one thing that allows a vet to be stable," said Daniels, who served in Southeast Asia with the Air Force. "They believe since the Cold War is over there will be no more wars. They don't understand that we sacrificed so they can have what they have."

In recent weeks, Lee Covino has been trying to tell that to the lawmakers who will decide the future of rent regulations. Covino is an Army veteran who was spared combat duty in Vietnam when he was called home after his father suffered a massive stroke. Out of guilt and duty, he has been trying to help those who served.

The country may no longer be fighting, but the peacetime closings of military bases will result in more veterans looking to find a place in the civilian world. Covino said their service should have earned them consideration and protection. In turn, the veterans could use their skills to keep apartment buildings clean and safe.

"You're going from where the government gives you clothing, food and housing and into a whole other fishbowl," he said. "The city or the state should address the veterans. These folks have something to do with us being here and being free. That goes back to World War II and us not goose-stepping."

Jay Russell Outlaw remembered leaving the Army and returning to Harlem in 1946, unable to find an apartment. He settled into a succession of rooms he rented in other people's homes until his brother gave him his apartment after he moved to a housing project.

Outlaw now lives on 135th Street and Broadway, a neighborhood that he likes for its easy access to subways, buses and the highway. He has noticed a lot of digging in the streets in recent years, with work crews replacing water mains and electrical lines. With the talk of doing away with rent laws, he wonders if it all wasn't part of a larger plan for the neighborhood.

"All that's missing is good housing," he said. "They'll get rid of us and put in high-rises. They won't tell you you can't live here. The price alone will tell you. We'll end up living in the boondocks."

Or maybe on the street, which is where Murry landed 10 years ago after losing his job and apartment. For a while, subway cars and public beaches offered meager comfort. He spent six years in a shelter before moving to the veterans' residence.

On a sunny day, he walked around the memorial commemorating the war he will never forget. Bouquets of dried flowers, slender stems topped by tissuelike tufts of color, lay on a ledge near rosaries and religious pictures taped to the memorial's glass blocks.

Soon, Murry was surrounded by a group of schoolchildren visiting from Public School 32 in the Bronx. Someone had told them he had been in the war in the early '70s, and they eagerly asked him questions. One of them, Anthony Jenkins, even asked for his autograph.

"He was in the service," Anthony said. "He could have died. But he didn't. He's a survivor."

With some unexpected practice, Murry now waits to sign a lease.