Political Differences Block Rent Compromise in Albany

New York Times, May 14, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The day after Gov. George Pataki announced his plan to broker a compromise that would gradually end rent regulations, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was still saying that he wanted the laws extended, untouched. State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, arguing that the governor's plan did not go far enough, was still saying he wanted the laws abolished in a handful of years. Compromise seemed as distant as ever.

Far from softening their stances, the legislative leaders seemed prepared Tuesday to battle over the laws until the hour they are scheduled to expire, at midnight June 15. They accused each other of intransigence, marshaled support for their positions and issued dire warnings about each other's plans.

In what seemed like a coordinated campaign, Pataki and Bruno, both Republicans, accused Silver, a Democrat of Manhattan, of trying to frighten tenants for political gain. Bruno defiantly reiterated his threat to allow the laws to expire unless Silver agreed to a plan to bring about their end.

"If the speaker stays where he is, he's going to have the full responsibility for this law expiring, and every tenant will suffer and be hurt," said Bruno, of Rensselaer County, across the Hudson River from Albany.

Silver returned the Republicans' accusations. "I would think the governor should look at the record as to who has been frightening tenants," he said. "He and his colleague, the majority leader, came out in December telling tenants he was going to end the rent laws."

So where does this leave the 2.5 million people in regulated apartments who are subjected almost daily to the anxiety-raising news flashes about the future of the rules? Are things as hopeless as they seem?

Like almost everything the Legislature touches, the answer is not clear. Though some people might think there is not much time left before the expiration of the laws, 33 days is an eternity in Albany, where politicians habitually wait until moments before a deadline to work out compromises on thorny issues. That means there will be a lot more saber rattling on the rent laws before anyone will publicly admit a willingness to budge.

That is partly because both Bruno and Silver want to look as if they are fighting until the last minute for their constituencies: for Silver, urban tenants; for Bruno, landlords and business interests.

May 20 looms as important in this political dance, because on that day thousands of tenants, probably accompanied by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his Democratic challengers, will trek to Albany for demonstrations in support of extending the laws. For symbolic as well as negotiating purposes, neither side, particularly not Silver, wants to display any signs of weakness before then.

But major philosophical and policy differences also separate the governor and the two leaders that will be extraordinarily difficult to bridge. How do you find a middle ground when one side insists that the system has been a disaster and must be dismantled, and the other contends it has provided immeasurable benefits and must be defended at all costs?

"It is an issue that won't submit to compromise," said John Zogby, a pollster from the Syracuse area. "You've got to take one side or the other: preserve it or get rid of it. Any effort to walk the middle ground becomes obviously just that: a dodge."

Of the three leaders, Pataki has the most difficult balancing act. He does not want to alienate city voters or his fellow Republican, Giuliani, by endorsing Bruno's call to end rent protections immediately. But as a proponent of free markets and smaller government, he also does not want to continue a system forever that many economists say has deprived landlords of a fair return on their investments and discouraged new housing.

What the governor proposed earlier this week attempts to walk both paths. He called for expanding a policy known as luxury decontrol, under which rent protections would be immediately abolished for people earning more than $175,000 a year for two consecutive years, except for tenants who are over 62 or disabled. He also proposed allowing landlords to charge market rates on apartments once they are vacated, a policy known as vacancy decontrol, which would eventually eliminate the limits on all 1.1 million regulated apartments.

Still, neither Silver nor Bruno was willing publicly to embrace the governor's proposal Tuesday, even though it contains elements both sides like. Bruno, who is the governor's main ally in the Legislature, said Tuesday that he considered Pataki's plan "closer to mine" than to Silver's, but still raised objections to it.

In particular, Bruno says he wants a definite date for ending most rent laws, something Pataki says he opposes. While vacancy decontrol would eventually accomplish that goal, it could take many years.

"When should it end?" he asked. "The governor says maybe 30 years, maybe two centuries. That's unacceptable. I'm saying some reasonable, realistic length of time. I said two years, maybe it's four, maybe it's five. It sure isn't 20 or 30."

Besides setting a definite date for ending rent regulations altogether, Bruno said he would insist on decontrol for all apartments that become vacant before that date. That way, landlords could get immediate relief on vacated apartments while they were waiting for the rules to expire.

Many politicians in Albany have privately suggested that one avenue for compromise might be some form of limited vacancy decontrol, under which rent protections are lifted only on costly apartments as they become vacant. That policy already exists for units renting for $2,000 or more a month, and could be expanded by including less expensive apartments.

But Bruno seemed to close the door to that idea Tuesday, saying he would not allow any bill to pass in the Senate unless it included vacancy decontrol for all regulated apartments, regardless of their rent. "It absolutely will not get through the Senate," he said, referring to any form of limited vacancy decontrol.

That leaves Silver. Tuesday, after Bruno, Pataki, former Mayor Edward I. Koch and the editorial boards of several major newspapers all called on him to be more flexible about scaling back the laws, he still was not budging.

Republicans say they think that Silver is playing a waiting game because he thinks voters will blame Pataki if the rent laws lapse, forcing him to accept a Democratic plan. But Tuesday, aides to Silver denied that.

"There is no such cockiness on this side," said a Silver aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. "People just need to wait until we get closer to the 15th."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company