Pataki Sends Fliers Touting His Rent Plan

New York Times, June 8, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- With barely a week left until the state's rent laws expire, Gov. George Pataki has sent a leaflet to millions of renters touting his plan to phase out the rules, a sign of the political high stakes involved in the stalemated fight over rent regulation.

The mailing, which many tenants received in the mail on Saturday, was paid for by the state, Zenia Mucha, the governor's communications director, said. She would not say how much it cost. She described it as a needed response to a mass mailing sent out last month by several Democratic legislators, also at public expense, that she described as "political hate mail" attacking the governor's plan.

The leaflet marks an escalation in a public relations campaign that Pataki, a Republican, began recently on behalf of his proposal. In an attempt to tip the scales of public opinion on an issue that has frightened millions of tenants, the governor has visited a senior citizens' center in Brooklyn, appeared on television interview shows and made a failed bid to organize a televised panel discussion of the issue.

The flier went to "just about every regulated apartment dweller in the city," Ms. Mucha said. "It's important that people who live in regulated apartments know the truth." There are more than 1 million rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments in New York City, housing about 2.7 million people.

Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said the mailing "is obviously designed to salvage Governor Pataki's utter failure to protect New York's tenants, most of them middle class, in the battle to save rent protections."

There are no state laws barring state officials from sending mailings at public expense to promote one side of an issue, said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group. "But it's the sort of thing that shouldn't be done," he said.

The cover of the governor's mailing bears the headline, "Governor Pataki's Plan Will Protect New York Renters," over a photograph of a smiling Pataki.

Inside, it seeks to calm renters' fears, but it never mentions the core of the governor's plan, and the element that has tenants and Democratic legislators up in arms: vacancy decontrol, which would lift rent rules from an apartment when the occupants move out, die or are evicted. Vacancy decontrol would eventually mean elimination of all rules, albeit over a period of decades.

Pataki has also proposed an expansion of luxury decontrol, the program that has removed rent protections for some wealthy tenants. His plan would eliminate such rules for anyone making $175,000 or more a year.

The mailing focuses on that element, saying that only "a few millionaires" would face deregulation, and on the fact that under the governor's plan, tenants living under rent regulation would remain protected so as long as they did not move.

"My plan ensures that every tenant except the wealthiest few who earn more than $175,000 a year will have the right to remain in their apartments for the rest of their lives," it says, in a message underscored by the governor's signature.

The mailing drew fierce criticism from groups in favor of maintaining the current rent rules.

The leaflet "is absolutely Orwellian," said Michael McKee, rent law campaign manager for the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, the state's largest renters' group.

"It never says what the plan actually does. This whole spin that they're trying to put on the Governor's plan as protecting tenants is false. They're going to decontrol 100 percent of apartments."

The state's rent laws that limit apartment rents and annual increases on about 1.2 million units, most of them in New York City, will expire at midnight next Sunday, June 15.

While there would be little immediate impact on most tenants, without some new set of rules to take the place of the old ones, the entire rental housing market would become deregulated over the next two years, allowing landlords to raise rents to whatever the market would bear, and to evict tenants at a whim.

As recently as a month ago, lawmakers predicted that either a compromise would be reached, or one side would capitulate before the laws expired. But it appears increasingly likely that the rules will be allowed to disappear before the issue is resolved.

The Assembly, controlled by Democrats, has passed a bill that would extend the current rules for four years, and the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has insisted that he will accept nothing less. The Democrats express confidence that it is Pataki and Republican legislators who would be harmed by the chaos and fear brought on by expiration of the laws -- indeed, by the fear already inspired by the mere talk of ending the rules.

As evidence that it is the governor who has the most to lose, they cite his aggressive efforts to sway public opinion, like the mailing.

The battle lines were drawn last December, when the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, a Republican from Rensselaer County, proposed phasing out rent rules for all but the elderly, disabled, and poor by 1999.

In the last few weeks, Bruno has indicated that he would accept something similar to Pataki's plan, though he would lower the luxury decontrol limit to $125,000 in income, a proposal that would deregulate far more tenants. Bruno insists that if a compromise is not reached by next Sunday, he will let the rules die.