As Rent Deadline Looms Maneuvering Begins in Earnest

New York Times, June 14, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Against a backdrop of rising tenant anxiety and a last-minute public relations blitzkrieg by all sides in the rent fight, Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders negotiated through the afternoon Friday trying to forge a compromise that would prevent state rent regulations from expiring on Sunday.

As they emerged from Pataki's office in the state Capitol early Friday evening, the governor and the other leaders said they had advanced a number of proposals intended to resolve major sticking points in the fight, but they refused to disclose any details from their five hours of talks and repeatedly demurred when asked if progress had been made.

"I wouldn't say we're any closer, but we are talking," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Rensselaer County, who has led the effort to abolish the laws.

The inconclusiveness of Friday's negotiations leaves in doubt the fate of the laws, which restrict rent increases on 1.1 million apartments and provide an array of protections to some 2.7 million tenants, almost all of them in New York City. If the leaders fail to reach an agreement by the end of the day Sunday, the laws will expire and the state will start down the unexplored and potentially tumultuous path of rent deregulation.

From Brooklyn to City Hall to the state Capitol, political leaders began bracing for that possibility Friday, offering up a host of plans intended to insulate tenants from any fallout from sudden rent decontrol. Pataki said he would issue an executive order on Saturday that would outline ways the state could help tenants fight harassment by landlords. But the governor could not offer any details about the order and acknowledged that there was probably little the state could do to really prevent the problem.

In Manhattan, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that the city would open a special telephone line on Saturday morning that tenants can call to find out about their legal rights or to report landlord harassment. In Brooklyn, District Attorney Charles Hynes said he had formed a special rent regulation unit to investigate complaints about tenant harassment.

And in Albany, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who has led the fight to keep the rent laws unchanged, said that he would have the Assembly pass legislation on Sunday to extend the current laws unchanged for one month to buy time for negotiations if no agreement has been reached. He also said that the Assembly would approve legislation that would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants for as long as the rent law remains expired. Bruno said neither measure would pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Though Bruno has vowed to block any short-term extensions of the rent laws, Senate Democrats said Friday that they would probably try to bring just such a bill to the floor Sunday night if no agreement is on the horizon.

Though the Democrats, who are outnumbered in the Senate 35-26, would normally have no power to force a vote on their bills, circumstances may be different on Sunday. Sen. Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie, who could be counted on to vote with Bruno, is expected to miss the session because of the recent death of his father. That would leave the Republicans with only a four-vote majority. But two Republicans, Frank Padavan of Queens and Roy Goodman of Manhattan, have said they will vote with the Democrats on the rent issue. And two other Republicans, Guy Velella of the Bronx and Nicholas Spano of Westchester, have said they want the current rent laws continued, though they have thus far refused to break with Bruno.

If Spano and Velella defect, the Senate could be left with a 30-30 tie over any rent measure that comes to the floor. That would leave it to Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, who presides over the Senate, to cast the deciding vote. Friday, Ms. Ross said she would vote with the Democrats to preserve the rent laws.

"My highest priority is to protect the tenants," said Ms. McCaughey Ross, who has begun running a full-page ad in the weekly Manhattan newspaper Our Towns promoting her support for the rent laws. The newspaper is owned in part by her husband, the financier Wilbur Ross.

But John McArdle, Bruno's spokesman, said that he was confident that the majority leader could block any Democratic measure from reaching the Senate floor. McArdle also left open the possibility that the Senate would not even convene if no rent agreement is reached by the leaders on Sunday.

After their negotiations Friday, the leaders said that talks remain stalemated over the issue of how much landlords should be allowed to increase rents when a regulated apartment becomes vacant. Republicans have called for allowing landlords to bring rents to market rate upon vacancy, a policy known as vacancy decontrol. Democrats have adamantly opposed that idea.

Friday, both Pataki and Silver said that ideas have been floated to resolve the impasse, though they declined to provide details. And they suggested that once the vacancy decontrol problem is resolved, other issues would follow.

"There is an area of common ground on each of the other issues," Silver said. Those issues include lifting protections for wealthy tenants, requiring tenants to pay rent into escrow accounts during disputes with landlords and limiting the rights of relatives and unmarried domestic partners to inherit regulated apartments once tenants move out or die.

No negotiations were scheduled for Saturday while Silver observes the Jewish sabbath. But Pataki and the two leaders said they would resume their negotiations on Sunday morning, and both houses of the Legislature are scheduled to return to Albany by Sunday night.

With no end to the struggle in sight, groups representing both landlords and tenants geared up to take to the streets, the phone lines and the airwaves in campaigns intended to win public support for their positions.

Officials with the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, said they have set up a phone bank that they expect to call 10,000 tenants by Monday, urging them to call their Democratic legislators and demand that they endorse Pataki's plan for gradually ending the rent regulation system. During the calls by the phone bank, tenants are asked whether they want to speak immediately to their Assembly member. If they do, they are patched directly to the legislators' Albany offices.

Several Assembly Democrats from Manhattan, who have been the Legislature's staunchest opponents to weakening the rent laws, reported receiving scores of such phone calls in the last 24 hours.

Tenants groups planned to demonstrate on Saturday outside the Queens home of state Sen. Serphin Maltese, a Republican who has said he would vote for Bruno's plan to sharply scale back the rent laws. The groups also said they will bus several hundred tenants to Albany on Sunday to demonstrate outside the Senate chambers while they are in session.

Both the landlords and tenants groups also have television commercials running in New York City that will continue through the weekend.