Protest and Panic as Deadline Looms in Rent Stalemate

New York Times, June 15, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Politicians and tenant organizers mobilized Saturday as if for war, bracing for the possible expiration of state rent laws Sunday night. Left hanging in the balance was the status of millions of apartment dwellers whose fate rests in the hands of lawmakers who are to return to the Capitol on Sunday to try to resolve the impasse.

In a sign of mounting panic over the prospect that the laws could lapse, a special phone line inaugurated saturday by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was inundated with calls from frightened tenants who were unsure of their rights.

Gov. George Pataki instructed the attorney general's office and the state courts to prepare, if the rules expire, for the prosecution of landlords who harass tenants. And tenant organizers staged a protest outside the home of a state legislator in Queens, the precursor to a planned series of demonstrations.

Real estate offices in the city, normally humming with action on a June weekend, were instead the scene of a dead calm. Apartment brokers said landlords were "warehousing apartments," intentionally keeping them vacant until they can be rented without state restrictions, and renters were staying away, unsure of what they might find.

"I've never seen a Saturday like this," said Ana Popovic, an agent at JMG Properties on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Everyone's scared, the landlords and the people who are renting."

Talks between Pataki and legislative leaders on resolving the deadlock are scheduled to resume Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Legislators have been told to return to the Capitol at 7 p.m. -- five hours before the laws limiting rents on more than 1 million apartments expire -- for a possible special legislative session that could go late into the night.

There are three possibilities for Sunday's drama: lawmakers could pass a bill extending the laws for a short period as negotiations continue; all sides could retreat far enough from their current positions to strike a deal, or the laws will expire at midnight.

Pataki, a Republican, and the majority Republicans in the Senate want to phase out the laws by deregulating apartments when tenants move out, die or are evicted, a practice known as vacancy decontrol, and eliminating rent limits for the wealthy.

The Democrats who control the Assembly reject vacancy decontrol, though they have signaled that they might be prepared to compromise on deregulation for high-income tenants and some lesser issues.

Friday, state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican from Rensselaer County who has led the fight to end the rent regulations, categorically ruled out an extension of the current laws, "not for an hour." But if there is progress in negotiations, he might come under fierce pressure from his fellow Republicans, including Pataki, to agree to an extension.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has said his house will pass an extension bill if needed Sunday night.

If the laws were allowed to lapse, the practical effect would not be felt by many renters for weeks or months, but the symbolism of, as legislators have been calling it, "going over the cliff," even for a few days, would be powerful, indeed.

Saturday, all of the principals in the struggle were miles from the Capitol. M

r. Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan, is a religious Jew whose beliefs prohibit working on the sabbath, and was at his weekend home in the Catskills.

Bruno, Pataki and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato were all attending a wedding at the home of state Republican Party chairman William Powers in Columbia County.

For months, state officials have wondered when or if D'Amato might step into the rent fray. He wields considerable influence with state Republican lawmakers, and, like Pataki, will run for re-election next year, and might be wary of a backlash at the polls among renters.

Thursday, D'Amato expressed the fear that Republicans would be blamed if the laws were allowed to lapse, a comment that was widely interpreted as putting pressure on Bruno to compromise. The two men talked Friday, but it is not clear what was said.

Several times in recent weeks, counsels of the state leaders have negotiated in their places. But aides to top officials of both parties said that Bruno -- who is seen as less open to compromise than the governor -- ruled that out for Saturday, fearing that he was being pushed to the side as the discussions increasingly became a two-way negotiation between Silver and Pataki.

The governor issued an executive order Saturday appointing Attorney General Dennis Vacco as special prosecutor to aid district attorneys in prosecuting existing laws against landlord harassment, and directing court administrators to temporarily assign extra judges to hear such cases.

The order was clearly designed to counter criticism from district attorneys that there would be an epidemic of landlord harassment, and that their offices would be ill-equipped to handle it.

Pat Lynch, a spokeswoman for Silver, said Pataki had no legal authority for such moves, while Billy Easton, executive director of the Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, the state's largest renters' group, dismissed it as "toothless political cover."

Neither side could resist using the issue as a political stiletto. Pataki released a statement saying, "If Mr. Silver lets the rent laws expire, it is clear he is using tenants as political pawns."

Ms. Lynch said, "The governor's executive order is a sham and a public relations ploy, and if he really wanted to protect people he would agree to an extension."

Bruno has said that if there is no deal Sunday night, the Senate might pass a "take it or leave it" vacancy decontrol plan, but with a handful of rebellious Republican senators insisting on preserving the laws and one absent after the death of his father, he might not have the votes to pass such a bill. But it also appears that he has the procedural power to prevent anything he does not like from being passed.

Tenant organizers plan to pack the Senate's visitors' gallery with hundreds of renters Sunday night.

Real estate agents in the city reported that landlords were intentionally keeping apartments vacant until Monday, when they can be rented without rent restrictions if the laws are not renewed.

Any rent-stabilized tenant in the city whose lease expires on or before Oct. 13 has a right to a lease renewal, which the landlord should have mailed by now. The same applies to rent-stabilized tenants in the suburbs whose leases expire on or before Sept. 13.

But if the laws lapse, beginning Monday, landlords would no longer have to offer lease renewals. In the unlikely event that the laws remained suspended for months, renters whose leases expire after mid-September or mid-October would be subject to evictions and unlimited rent increases at a landlord's whim.

The city's major landlords' group, the Rent Stabilization Association, has urged property owners to continue to abide by the laws, even if they expire, warning that any compromise approved by state lawmakers is likely to be retroactive.

Landlord leaders have expressed fear that a handful of opportunistic owners would generate enough adverse publicity to affect the outcome of the fight over the laws, and have promised to police their own industry.

Rent-controlled tenants outside New York City could be hurt sooner, because they do not have leases. In theory, their landlords could inform them Monday that they intend to evict them or raise their rents, and the renters could receive eviction notices as soon as August 1.

Tenants' groups staged a protest Saturday outside the home of state Sen. Serphin Maltese, in Middle Village, Queens. Maltese, one of five Republican senators from New York City, has said he would side with Bruno in phasing out rent controls, but tenant organizers consider him a potential swing vote.

The renters plan a series of events to keep pressure on Pataki to capitulate, including a candlelight vigil Sunday night at the governor's New York City office. They intend to picket the governor's mansion in Albany on Monday, and demonstrate at his New York City office later in the day.

More demonstrations are planned, including a protest a week from Sunday outside Pataki's house in Garrison.