Fear and Anger Grip Tenants Just Before Deadline

New York Times, June 16, 1997
NEW YORK -- By most rights, Matt Fried should have been in a glorious mood. The sky was a cloudless blue, the temperature hovered soothingly in the mid-70s and the multicolored balloons and giddy laughter from a child's birthday party wove a festive visual and aural tapestry around him.

But the expression on his face as he sat on a shaded bench in Riverside Park on Sunday was one of distilled, unmitigated anxiety. Try as he might not to think about them, struggle as he did not to worry about them, he could not get the lawmakers in Albany out of his mind.

Fried, a psychologist, said that what these politicians would do or not do in the hours ahead carried profound implications for him, because without the rent regulations that were due to expire at midnight, he would probably be forced to leave not only an apartment on West 79th Street that he had occupied for 27 years, but also Manhattan, an isle of increasingly unaffordable housing.

And while Fried said he respected legislators' disagreements about rent regulation, he resented the fact that they were taking their bickering down to the wire, because what might seem to them like routine political brinkmanship prolonged a gnawing, even gut-wrenching suspense for him and hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers.

"We're at their mercy," Fried said, adding that with the passing of each day last week, he felt more helpless. "I feel cornered, and I'm not alone."

Many New York City residents said Sunday that they felt as if they were twisting in the wind, and they complained that state lawmakers had acted cruelly by leaving them in that tense, tortured position for so long.

They questioned why it had come to this, and the answers they came up with reflected a deep cynicism toward politicians in Albany and the entire political process. Some of them said that the rent-regulation countdown was about chest-thumping and speech-giving and fund-raising, not about the quickening pulses and dawning dread of many of the tenants in the balance.

"It's heartless and soulless," said Hamiet Bluiett, a jazz musician who pays about $1,300 a month for a large, rent-stabilized two-bedroom apartment on West End Avenue. Without rent regulation, Bluiett said, he would probably have to move.

"The politicians have turned this into a horse race, because that's exciting," Bluiett said. "It lets a lot of people speak out and point fingers and get in the news. It's all about one side attacking the other, and you can't really figure out what's going on or what the truth is. It's crazy."

What fueled that disaffection Sunday was a sense of panic that could be detected to varying degrees in various parts of New York City. Hundreds of tenants lugged protest signs onto chartered buses bound for Albany, where they planned to hold demonstrations against changes in rent laws.

Hundreds more flooded phone lines set up by New York City to answer legal questions about the possible end of rent regulation and to field complaints about harassment from landlords.

Alluding both to that unrest and to the state legislators who had the opportunity to resolve it Sunday night, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said: "Hopefully, the pressure of this, particularly if they go beyond tomorrow, will grow on the people who are causing it."

Giuliani said that he had told politicians in Albany that "people are very frightened and you're taking advantage of them." But the mayor added, "I don't know if they really understood that."

To be sure, some of the estimated 2.7 million tenants, almost all of them New York City residents, who live in rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartments were doing a fine job Sunday of ignoring the looming expiration of rent regulation and the possible rollbacks of rent protections that might follow.

"I'm just not going to make myself crazy," said James Grivas, 29, who lives near Times Square in a rent-stabilized, one-bedroom apartment for which he pays $900 a month. "Finding an apartment in New York City has always been such a horrible, horrible, horrible experience. This is just another thing."

Others simply could not believe that a profound change in rent regulation was in the offing, deadline or no deadline.

"I can't imagine the rug is going to be pulled out from underneath us," said Deborah Hancock, 34, who pays $1,100 a month for a one-bedroom apartment near Columbia University. "It would affect too many lives."

Moreover, some city residents, including a few in rent-regulated apartments, said they saw nothing in the politicians' grappling over rent laws that was any more partisan or intransigent than battles over previous, unrelated issues.

But other New Yorkers were unnerved and annoyed. Contemplating a possible end to rent regulation and the impossibility of replicating their current rents when their leases expire, some tenants painted futures for themselves that included homelessness, moving back in with relatives or giving up on New York City for a less expensive life in a smaller, quieter place.

"I personally will be out on the street," said Bernard Litvin, 68, a retired man who lives with his 89-year-old mother, Fannie, in a rent-controlled apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Both were waiting for a bus to go to Albany, and Mrs. Litvin added plaintively, "I'm plenty frightened."

As they and other tenants listened to the ticking of a distant clock in Albany, they turned their attention, often for the first time, to the famous political wrangling of a legislative body that many New York City residents usually disregard. The infighting they saw was hardly new, but they were newly appalled.

"It's like daylight outside and two sides are arguing if it is day or night," said Roger Lee, 29, a mechanic who lives in a rent-regulated apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Giovanni Puello, 41, a city worker with three children and a salary of about $30,000, said that every new day of limbo has tightened the knot in his stomach, because an end to rent regulation would mean an end to his living in an apartment he has occupied on the Upper West Side for two decades.

"It's put a lot of stress on me," Puello said Sunday afternoon as he strolled with his 3-year-old daughter, Gabriela, through Riverside Park. "I'm here playing with my kids, and I have to try not to think about it, but it's here. It's on my mind 24 hours a day."

That was the case, too, for Fried, who was in the park with his wife, Millie Waldman, and their 5-year-old daughter, Gaby. Fried said that what he resented perhaps most of all was the way the waiting and stalling in the political war had whittled down his ideals.

Fried said that he had always opposed any major overhaul of the laws on philosophical grounds, because he cares about the diversity and stability of neighborhoods, but as he sat on the edge of the deadline Sunday, he found himself fixated on his own plight and wishing simply for a vacancy-decontrol protection that would keep him and his family in their apartment.

"I feel corrupted and compromised by my anxiety: Oh please, give me a break," he said.