Senators Give Some Ground in Rent-Control Fight

By JAMES DAO
New York Times, June 12, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- After a week of public-relations miscues and falling poll numbers for Gov. George Pataki, Senate Republicans on Wednesday gave ground on several crucial elements in the rent-control battle, potentially giving the Republican governor greater latitude to negotiate a compromise with Democrats who want the rent laws extended.

With just four days to go before the laws are scheduled to expire, the state Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, unveiled a bill Wednesday that is almost identical with a plan offered by Pataki several weeks ago.

In accepting the governor's more moderate proposal Wednesday, Bruno, who began this year's rent fight with a call to end most rent protections in two years, significantly softened his stance on two major issues: deregulating apartments for wealthy tenants and allowing unmarried domestic partners to inherit regulated apartments.

Though a wide gap still separates Democrats, who want the rent laws kept intact, from Republicans, who have called for gradually ending them, Bruno's actions Wednesday were viewed by tenant advocates and legislators in both parties as an important first step to resolving the protracted struggle.

Pataki is considered less rigid on the rent issue than Bruno, so each step that the Republican majority leader takes away from the fray increases the possibility of a deal, the legislators say.

"It will be the governor negotiating with Shelly from now on," said one Republican senator, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, Albany's leading Democrat.

But Bruno denied that he was stepping aside to let Pataki dictate the final talks, saying he was simply trying to show that he was open to compromise. And he called on Silver, who has stayed firm in his opposition to weakening the laws, to do the same.

"I have tried to create an atmosphere of flexibility, responsiveness, responsibility," Bruno said. "And I have moved from what I would prefer, a total deregulation in two years of a system that has not worked for years."

Tenant leaders contended that Pataki and Bruno have always shared very similar plans. But they also said Bruno's announcement Wednesday showed that Pataki has the power to bring the Senate along with him if he is able to broker a compromise with the Democrats.

"Any questions about whether the governor can deliver the Senate have been resolved," said Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition. "It's quite clear that if Pataki changes his plan, the Senate will come along with him."

No further talks on the issue are to take place until Friday morning, as Silver observes the Jewish holiday of Shabuoth.

The results of a New York Times poll showed Wednesday that the governor's approval rating had dropped by 10 percentage points over three months in New York City -- a time in which the rent debate has been the biggest political issue.

On Wednesday, Bruno declined to say when he would ask the Senate to pass his new bill, a reflection of his concern about pressuring Republicans from the city to vote with him. At present, four Republican senators do not want to vote for the bill, leaving Bruno with the bare minimum of 31 votes that he needs to pass the measure, which faces a certain death in the Assembly.

The centerpiece of Bruno's bill is the policy known as vacancy decontrol, which would lift rent ceilings on apartments as they become vacant. Democrats are adamantly opposed to that policy, which would eventually lead to the end of the rent-regulation system as tenants die or move on, but Pataki supports it.

In two major ways the new bill marks important shifts by Bruno. It calls for ending rent protections for tenants who earn an average of $175,000 a year over two years -- previously Bruno had called for an income ceiling of $125,000.

Pataki has also called for an income threshold of $175,000 for the policy known as luxury decontrol. Under current law, apartments are deregulated for tenants earning more than $250,000 for two consecutive years.

And Bruno's bill would allow unmarried homosexual or heterosexual domestic partners to remain in regulated apartments after a tenant moves out or dies, provided they had been living there for two years. Previously Bruno had said he wanted to grant such succession rights only to immediate family members.

Pataki's plan would grant succession rights to domestic partners as well as a more extended range of family members than Bruno's plan. The two Republicans' plans differ in another way: Bruno's would allow succession for only one generation while Pataki's would not limit the number of times a regulated apartment could be passed on.

With rent negotiations put on hold until Friday, landlord groups plan to begin running a new set of television commercials in New York City on Thursday that are intended to build support for Pataki's plan and pressure Silver to compromise.

"Sadly, Assembly Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver is playing politics with rent control," the narrator says. "Tell Sheldon Silver: 'Don't let rent control expire."'