How to Kill Rent Control And Survive

New York Times, April 6, 1997

This was how things looked from the inside:

In a chandeliered ballroom in midtown Manhattan, a crowd of several hundred dark-suited guests was awaiting the arrival of the State Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno. The Senator was the main attraction at a breakfast organized by Crain's New York Business for the moderately to the immensely well connected. When he entered the ballroom, Mr. Bruno, a Troy Republican, was greeted with warm handshakes and claps on the back.

This was. how things looked from the outside:

Across the street, about 150 protesters dressed in parkas and blue jeans were also waiting for Mr. Bruno in the early-morning light. Straining against police barriers they chanted angry slogans and waved cardboard placards. "Send Bruno to Juneau" read one of their hand-painted signs.

Mr. Bruno seemed unfazed by the all-to allegorical contrast, if he was even aware of it. When it was time to speak, he used the occasion to reiterate his support for ending rent regulation as we know it. And while he stopped short of saying, as he has in the past, that rent controls had caused more damage to New York City than a nuclear warhead, he still described their effect as one of "devastation."

The majority leader went on to acknowledge that some of his Senate colleagues might be hesitant about ending rent regulation, especially those representing areas where the rules have protected tenants for almost half a century.

But the "good news," he told the Crain's breakfast crowd to much appreciative laughter, "is that I don't have rent-controlled or stabilized units in my district."

For as long as New Yorkers can remember, the Republican- controlled State Senate has been vowing to end rent regulation, and for just as long, tenants have taken to the streets in protest. But until recently, the conflict has seemed mostly stagecraft. Neither side seemed to take the dramatics terribly seriously, they had a bloodless, ritualized quality, like Kabuki theater without the costumes.

But this year, Mr. Bruno insists that he really is serious. Moreover, his aides insist that he is serious when he says he is serious. And they readily explain how he can, with hardly an effort, bring rent regulation to an end. There are 35 Republicans in the 61-member Senate, and all they have to do is not do anything. Rent regulations expire -- or, as they say in Albany, "sunset" -- on June 15, and without an agreement to continue them, they will end automatically.

To make sure nothing happens, Mr. Bruno needs the support of 30 other Republicans, support that his aides insist he has. Mr. Bruno can even afford to let the four most vulnerable Republican Senators off the hook. Senators Roy M. Goodman of Manhattan, Frank Padavan of Queens, Guy J. Velella of the Bronx and Nicholas A. Spano of Westchester all can vote to continue rent regulation and the regulations can still die.

It is precisely Mr. Bruno's ability to exempt these four that gives his promise to the Crain's crowd an air of real plausibility. Rent regulation is one of the very few issues potent enough to cost an established state senator his seat. There is, after all, almost nothing quite as galling to a voter as getting thrown out of his home.

But Mr. Bruno's strategy also has a weak link: it may underestimate ordinary citizens and their understanding of how Albany politics really work.

The plan is based on the notion that the Republican Senators who vote to extend the rent regulations will not be held accountable even if the rest of their party votes to kill or significantly weaken them. It assumes that by voting with the Democrats on this issue, the four Republican Senators can convince voters that they were genuinely fighting the good fight.

In fact, however, practically any one -- and certainly any two or three -- of these Senators could scuttle the majority leader's plan.

If Mr. Padavan, for example, were to make it plain to Mr. Bruno that he would no longer vote with the party on other issues or if Mr. Goodman were to threaten to withdraw his support, the strategy would collapse. With only a four-seat majority, Mr. Bruno cannot risk a genuine revolt among Senate Republicans.

Pressed on whether he and his allies could be doing more to save rent regulation, Mr. Padavan said he did not think so. "I don't withhold votes on issues," he said." I've never played that game."

Mr. Velella's press secretary, Jane Petrik, said the Senator would "do what he can to preserve the laws."

Mr. Goodman bristled at a reporter's suggestion that he could be any more forceful in his tactics. He said, somewhat indignantly, that he would "go to the mat" for rent regulation. But then he pointed out that there are some things a gentlemen simply doesn't do.

"When we are on the mat," he asked, "do we indulge in ultimate fighting or do we follow the Marquis of Queensberry rules?"

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company