Avoidance and Obsession on Rent Laws

New York Times, June 9, 1997
NEW YORK -- In the psychopathology of political conflict, Albany's running feud over rent regulation could perhaps best be described as an aggravated case of settlement avoidance.

At the start of the conflict, so many months ago, when the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, declared his intent to end rent regulation once and for all and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver pledged in response to extend those regulations in perpetuity, the basis of an eventual compromise seemed to be clear: luxury decontrol.

The obvious appeal of luxury decontrol -- a procedure already in limited use for deregulating high rent apartments with high income tenants -- is that it helps restrict the benefits of rent control to those who might actually need it. And, by doing so, it would allow both sides to claim something like a moral victory.

But as the days have lengthened and the seasons changed, attention in Albany, always a limited commodity, has been focused almost exclusively on vacancy decontrol, under which apartments are automatically deregulated as soon as they become empty. Bruno, a Republican from a suburb of Troy, has vowed that he will not extend the rent laws without vacancy decontrol. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has vowed that he will not extend them with it.

There are still plenty of people in Albany who think that before the rent laws expire, at midnight Sunday, some sort of compromise will be reached, and that an expansion of luxury decontrol will be a critical component. But if that does happen, it will certainly have been a long, strange trip to get there.

A version of luxury decontrol was enacted four years ago, after a debate that was, in retrospect, a mere warm-up round for this year's legislative slug fest.

Under the 1993 law, apartments that rent for more than $2,000 a month can be deregulated upon vacancy. Occupied apartments renting for more than $2,000 can also be deregulated if the tenants earn more than $250,000 a year. Since the law was enacted, it is estimated that some 3,000 apartments have been decontrolled.

There are many ways that luxury decontrol could be expanded, some of which would, arguably, stretch the definition of luxury. The legislature could, by varying degrees, lower rent thresholds, or lower income thresholds or some combination of the two.

Of course, both sides have some serious reservations about luxury decontrol, which is precisely why it represents a potential point of compromise.

Tenants' groups resist luxury decontrol because they see it, justifiably, as the proverbial camel's nose. As rents inevitably increase, luxury decontrol takes an ever increasing number of apartments out of the regulatory system, meaning that the constituency for preserving the system is always shrinking -- and thus declining in clout.

"There's a natural incentive to continue to lower the levels," complained Billy Easton, executive director of the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition. "Where's the stopping point?"

For their part, landlords are also resistant because luxury decontrol leaves the system of rent regulation fundamentally intact, while creating yet another administrative burden.

It is also, at least initially, hard to make much of a dent in the system unless "luxury" is defined fairly aggressively. Out of 1.1 million rent-regulated apartments, only about 5 percent, for example, are occupied by families making more than $100,000 a year.

For nearly five months Gov. George Pataki insisted that it was going to be his role to engineer a compromise that would end the rent dispute. It was thus something of a surprise when, a few weeks ago, he offered a plan that pretty clearly wasn't one. At its center was a call for vacancy decontrol, which put the governor sharply at odds with Silver and clearly in line with Bruno.

Pataki's uncompromise was interpreted by his allies as a show of principle; the governor, this group said, was proposing vacancy decontrol because he believes it is the best policy. By his adversaries, the governor's proposal was interpreted as a blunder. Pataki, they argued, had wanted to occupy the middle ground; he just didn't know where it lay.

Luxury decontrol is also part of Pataki's plan, and indeed is endorsed by Bruno as well. (Pataki proposes decontrolling the apartments of those making more than $175,000 a year; Bruno proposes a limit of $125,000.) But so far this aspect of the two plans has been all but ignored as Albany obsesses over full-scale vacancy decontrol.

As long as this particular obsession continues -- and with a week left, it shows no signs of abating -- the rent laws seem fated to expire. But in Albany, it is well known that nothing happens until everything happens and that the last hour counts more than the first six months.