Strategist Helps Owners Lobby for Their Concerns

By RANDY KENNEDY
New York Times, June 12, 1997
NEW YORK -- In the cacophonous battle over the future of rent controls, New York's largest landlord group, the Rent Stabilization Association, has long complained that its voice gets drowned out in a city of renters.

Even as it assembled many of its members on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday for a show of unity, its message sometimes seemed overwhelmed, as one of its most prominent landlords, Lewis Rudin, struggled to be heard over the Rev. Al Sharpton at a political news conference just feet away.

But perhaps at no other time in its 28-year history has the group -- which represents 25,000 landlords, ranging from working-class owners of small Brooklyn buildings to owners of hundreds of luxury apartments -- found itself in such a pivotal and high-profile position.

As Republican state lawmakers wage the most serious campaign in decades to weaken laws that regulate apartment rents and leases, the group's leaders have become the prime spokesmen for a return to the free market in the city's rental business and are fixtures in newspapers and on television news talk shows.

Its members, many long content to pay their dues and remain anonymous, have come forward to complain about cumbersome rules and scant returns on their investments.

Most important, after years of being criticized for its lack of political acumen, the group has transformed itself into a major player in Albany. In the last five years, through its political action committee and another closely related one made up of the group's largest landlords, it has become one of the biggest contributors to the state Republican Party and to Republican state candidates.

Many within the real estate industry credit the group's increased profile to its president, Joseph Strasburg, hired in 1994 after spending eight years as the chief of staff to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, of Queens. They say Strasburg, 45, has been more successful than his predecessors in unifying a membership with widely divergent economic interests and focusing them on a bottom line: scaling back rent protections.

The association was formed in 1969 when the state's rent stabilization laws were enacted, and until 1983, when the rent system was put under state control, it acted as a quasi-city agency, helping to draft and administer rules. Now, it serves primarily as a lobbying group and provides a wide range of services mostly to its small owners: those who own 60 or fewer units, who make up 70 percent of the membership.

It refuses to discuss its operating budget, generated through dues. (In the early 1980s, it charged members $5 per apartment. Its members now own about a million apartments in the city.)

A savvy and sometimes pugnacious political strategist with an ever-present cigar, Strasburg said the group had been largely responsible for pushing the Republican leadership to attack rent laws.

"The fact that this is being debated to the extent it's being debated -- the first time since 1974, really -- and the fact that we have been able to make people aware of the abuses of the system shows that to a large extent, I think we've moved the process forward dramatically," said Strasburg, who grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in the Bronx and lived in a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan before moving to Staten Island.

Others say the association was as shocked as everyone else when state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, vowed last December to do away with rent protections for all but the elderly, poor and disabled.

"They've really just gone along for the ride," said a city official familiar with the association.

The impact of the political contributions -- almost $750,000 to state candidates and party committees since 1992 -- is also unclear. Strasburg discounts the money, saying its only effect has been to keep doors open and calls returned. The association's members have heavily favored Republicans, he said, "because the Assembly will clearly take their money and never respond."

But tenant advocates and other observers contend that the money has been the prime motivator in the debate, underscoring the role of several large property owners in the association who have actively opposed rent laws, among them Leonard Litwin, whose company owns several thousand apartments on the Upper East Side; Jeffrey Manocherian, a partner in Manocherian Brothers, which owns several thousand Manhattan apartments, and Arnold Goldstein, a successful developer and the acting chairman of the landlord association.