Giuliani Lobbies for Rent Controls

New York Times, June 3, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. -- With two weeks left until state rent controls expire, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani traveled here Monday and called on Gov. George Pataki to become more involved in resolving the impasse, while the governor went to New York City to begin a public relations campaign in favor of his proposal to phase out rent regulations.

In his strongest language to date, Giuliani put the onus for resolving the dispute over the rent laws squarely on his fellow Republican, Pataki. "The governor taking a role in this will help move it in the right direction, I believe, and I would urge him to take a stronger role," he said.

When asked what such a role might be, the mayor, who favors continuing the rent regulations and has publicly disparaged Pataki's position, suggested that it would begin with the governor's changing his mind. "I think that the governor will recognize the damage that could be done here," he said.

Zenia Mucha, Pataki's communications director, said, "The mayor's entitled to state anything he wishes, but the fact of the matter is that the governor has said time and time again that both sides need to get together and negotiate a compromise."

The governor has proposed ending rent regulations for apartments when they become vacant, a policy known as vacancy decontrol that would gradually end all controls as tenants move out or die. He has also proposed deregulating rents for tenants who earn $175,000 a year or more.

Giuliani, like top Democratic state lawmakers, opposes vacancy decontrol, and he said Monday that the $175,000 limit was too low.

Pataki spoke with elderly residents in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Monday in the first of a series of events designed to sell his plan to a nervous public. And he announced plans for a televised forum on rent issues to be held Tuesday, a proposal that ran into trouble even before it was made public.

At the Bay Ridge Center for Older Adults, Pataki told 100 people that his plan was "a fair and balanced approach that would protect you," repeating the two adjectives he has used to describe his position since announcing it last month.

As one woman expressed the fear that the fate of ordinary people would be lost in negotiations over the laws, he said, "That's exactly why I'm here, because I want to give it right from my heart as to what we're trying to do."

Several people said they saw the governor's plan to institute vacancy decontrol as a covert way to end regulations while not angering current voters. "You're opening the door to full decontrol," one man, Alex Staber, said angrily. "You're not being honest with the people."

As he did repeatedly during the morning visit, the governor avoided the specific charge and simply assured Staber that "99 percent of current tenants would be protected" under his plan.

Monday morning, the governor's office issued a news release stating that he would host a panel discussion on the rent laws Tuesday night on New York One, the cable television news channel in New York City. The release said that Billy Easton, a prominent tenant organizer, and Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, who supports the current system, had said they would be on the panel but that Easton was having second thoughts.

But officials at New York One said they had never made a firm commitment to broadcast the event. And even before reporters received the news release, Easton said he had never agreed to take part if the event was run by the governor. "We'd love to do the panel if there was a nonbiased moderator," he said.

Lopez, chairman of the Housing Committee, said he initially agreed to participate but then withdrew because of the governor's role and the composition of the panel, which he said was weighted toward Pataki's views.

Monday afternoon, Pataki's aides, who said the forum was his idea, said the plan had been changed to have a New York One reporter act as host, with the governor giving introductory and closing remarks and acting as a member of the panel. Once again, they said Easton had agreed to appear, and once again, he said he would have no part of it. Lopez said that he was not sure but that he was unlikely to take part if Easton did not.

Steve Paulus, vice president for news at New York One, said, "I think they're getting closer to a format that's going to work." But he added that he was still not certain the station would do the broadcast.

The Assembly, controlled by Democrats, has passed a bill that would continue the current rent rules, and its top officials, like Giuliani, insist that the governor's plan is unacceptable. The leader of the Senate's Republican majority, Joseph Bruno, who had called for ending rent rules within a few years, has indicated that he would accept something like Pataki's proposal.

Bruno has said that if there is no compromise in place when the laws expire at midnight on June 15, he will allow them to lapse, abruptly ending the regulations that limit rents and rent increases for 1.2 million apartments, most of them in New York City.

Pataki, Bruno and Silver have had little direct negotiations on rent, though the issue has held up progress on other pressing matters like the budget and welfare policy. While there have been many compromise measures proposed, one side or the other has rejected each of them as a capitulation. But Giuliani, who met with several Republican and Democratic lawmakers to lobby them on rent, insisted Monday that the governor's plan "does offer possibilities of negotiating a solution," though he did not say how.

Aides to the mayor said he was frustrated that Pataki had not held more talks with legislative leaders on the issue. But Giuliani, who generally treads lightly with a governor whom he often petitions for favors, was careful not to criticize Pataki outright. And he dismissed the suggestion by some Assembly Democrats that the governor had arranged not to be in Albany for the mayor's lobbying trip.

"He has to make his own calculation, politically, where and how he wants to involve himself in it, and he's probably made the calculation that he'd rather have a little distance from it right now," Giuliani said. "The governor has to decide, in his own way, how he wants to play a role in this. The stronger leadership role that he plays in it, the better off we're going to be."

Meanwhile Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said he feared that vacancy decontrol would lead to widespread harassment of tenants by landlords who wanted them to move so rents on their apartments could be increased.

He said that in the 1980s, when the market was tight and vacancies meant higher rents, unscrupulous landlords seeking to drive renters out resorted to tactics ranging from "bringing prostitutes into the building to taking the hinges off the doors to flooding the apartments." He said the potential for abuse under vacancy decontrol would be even stronger.

As part of his plan, Pataki has proposed criminal penalties for landlords who harass tenants.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company