Landlords Set to Promote Pataki Rent Plan

NY Times, May 28, 1997
ALBANY -- After complaining for weeks that Gov. George E. Pataki's plan did not move quickly enough to eliminate rent controls, the major New York City landlords group will begin a radio commercial campaign this week in support of the Governor's proposal.

The Rent Stabilization Association, whose 25,000 members own the more than one million rent-stabilized apartments in the city, plans to broadcast its advertisements heavily, beginning Wednesday or Thursday, for two weeks on major radio stations, officials of the group said, speaking on condition of anonymity. They said that the price of the campaign would approach $200,000 and that the ads would be heard on WCBS, WINS, WABC, WADO, WBLS, WAXQ and WPLJ, among others.

The officials said the group's shift in favor of the Governor's plan was simply an admission of the hard political fact that what they wanted -- total decontrol of the rental market in the near future -- would not come to pass. "We don't agree with all of the Governor's plan, but we know that it's the best thing on the table," one official said.

But tenant organizers and legislators who oppose any change in the current rent protections said that what apparently is a change in position by the Rent Stabilization Association is just the latest step in a carefully choreographed campaign. All along, they said, the aim of the landlords and Mr. Pataki has been vacancy decontrol, the core of the Governor's proposal, which would eliminate rent regulation on an apartment only when its occupants move out or die. Tenant advocates contend that vacancy decontrol would encourage landlords to harass tenants to make them vacate apartments.

The radio campaign marks the first time in this year's fight over rent laws that the Rent Stabilization Association has taken to the airwaves, a sign -- along with a broadcast budget befitting a serious political campaign -- of the high stakes in the struggle. And the chief of the organization said today that it was also likely to produce and broadcast television ads, an even more expensive proposition, in the next few weeks.

For most of the year, the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, vowed to eliminate the rent laws within a few years, a proposal that had the enthusiastic backing of the landlords. The current laws limiting rents on more than one million apartments expire at midnight on June 15.

On May 12, the Governor, also a Republican, called for vacancy decontrol, which would let tenants keep rent protections for as long as they remain in the same apartments. He also proposed removing rent limits on apartments whose tenants earn more than $175,000 a year, and criminal penalties for landlords who harass renters.

Republican lawmakers rallied around Mr. Pataki's plan, apparently undercutting Mr. Bruno, and the majority leader eventually said he would agree to something like what the Governor had proposed. Landlord groups, including the Rent Stabilization Association, attacked the Governor's plan as too little change, enacted too slowly.

"This was all orchestrated so that Senator Bruno came out in December, and then the Governor could come out with his plan and call it a compromise and look like the hero," said the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who has pledged to keep rent protections in place. "This is one big fraud on 2.7 million renters, and it's being orchestrated by the Governor. This was the game plan all along."

He also asserted that Mr. Pataki, sensing that his proposal was unpopular, had "spent hours on the phone" with landlords, "arm-twisting" to get them to bankroll an advertising campaign in favor of the plan, but he would not say how he knew that to be the case.

"Those comments don't even deserve any kind of a response," said Zenia Mucha, the Governor's communications director. Of the radio campaign itself she would say only, "It's not surprising that the overwhelming majority of people would support his plan."

The two 60-second Rent Stabilization Association ads promote the Governor as much as they do vacancy decontrol. "Governor Pataki has the solution," one says. Another says, "The Pataki plan protects 99 percent of all tenants from losing their rent-controlled apartments." Both commercials were produced by Steve Mangione, a media consultant retained this year by the Rent Stabilization Association.

"This just proves that Pataki is the landlords' man, and they're desperate to get what they can while he's still Governor," said Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Association. "There never has been any doubt in our minds that vacancy decontrol has been their primary goal from the beginning, that the rest was just posturing."

Mr. Silver said that because of the pro-Pataki tone of the ads, they might be an improper circumvention of the state's campaign finance laws. Democrats made the same charge in March about television ads paid for by two utility companies that lauded the Governor's role in lowering Long Island electric rates. They were quickly pulled off the air.

Ms. Mucha declined to respond to Mr. Silver's statement.

Speaking to reporters today while on a lobbying trip to the state Capitol, Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, declined to talk specifically about what advertising the group might do. But he said it was likely to broadcast television commercials as the June 15 deadline approaches, and that it had hired Global Strategies, a political consulting firm usually associated with Democrats, to produce them.

Any commercials the group produced would be designed to inform, he said. He asserted that last week's rally here by thousands of tenants in favor of keeping the current rules proved "that many of the people who are protesting do not know what Bruno and the Governor are proposing, and that there is a need to educate the public."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company