Act Honorably, Landlord Groups Urge Members

New York Times, June 11, 1997

NEW YORK -- Saying they believed there was a strong chance that state rent controls would expire Sunday, the city's largest landlord groups called on their members Tuesday to act responsibly and continue to honor and renew leases on rent-regulated apartments while Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders negotiate the terms of a new law.

The eight groups also pledged to create a watchdog committee, which will be headed by Lewis Rudin, the real-estate developer and civic booster, to investigate complaints of harassment and rent gouging by landlords.

Last week, rent-control proponents and three of New York City's five district attorneys asserted that harassment and efforts to evict tenants would rise dramatically if rent protections ended.

But while the Rent Stabilization Association and seven other landlord groups called on their peers to treat tenants fairly, they also informed their members that they should feel free to set rents at market levels if the current tenant moves out or dies.

That policy, known as vacancy decontrol, is the foundation of the legislative proposals developed by Pataki and state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno. It is opposed by Assembly Democrats, who want the existing laws renewed.

The landlords' plea, issued on the steps of City Hall before a bank of television cameras, reflected their own apprehensions that some of their peers might use the expiration of the laws as an opportunity to immediately evict tenants or raise rents dramatically -- actions that could cause panic and damage the efforts of their allies, state Senate Republicans, to craft legislation that would phase out rent laws.

Rudin, co-chairman of Rudin Management Co., said that owners had no interest in taking advantage if a legal void exists next Monday. "We are a responsible industry," he said.

But he added that owners' groups planned to be vigilant. "And if we say we are going to make sure and police this industry, and make sure there is no harassment, you can bet your last dollar on that," he said.

It was unclear how the group, which has no legal authority over its members, would fulfill its pledge.

Owners also used the opportunity Tuesday to complain that they had been unfairly characterized as unscrupulous by tenant advocates and by the district attorneys of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The three prosecutors -- Robert Morgenthau, Charles Hynes and Richard Brown -- predicted last week that Republican vacancy decontrol plans would encourage criminal harassment of tenants by landlords.

"The accusations about harassment are just not true," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. He said that when vacancy decontrol was in place in the early 1970s, harassment complaints actually dropped. (Tenant advocates do not dispute this but say it was because the system became so unworkable that frustrated tenants stopped filing complaints.)

Rudin added that landlords would not allow themselves to be used by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for political advantage. "I send that message to my good friend Shelly Silver," he said. "If he's looking for chaos, he'd better look someplace else."

In an open letter to owners of rent-regulated apartments, the landlord groups Tuesday asked their members to continue to offer lease renewals if the rent laws expire. It said the renewals should be issued 120 days before the expiration of the current leases, as the current law requires. And it added that the landlords should offer tenants the option of one- or two-year leases, with only the increases set by the city's Rent Guidelines Board. It asked that outstanding lease offers be honored even if the landlord and tenants have not signed the lease.