The Powers That Be As the Rent Law Deadline Approaches

by Peter Duffy
The Resident, June 12, 1997
The Powers That Be As the Rent Law Deadline Approaches, Work in Albany Comes to a Grinding Halt While Pataki, Bruno and Silver Decide the Fate of 2.7 Million Tenants

With just days before rent laws expire, the city, if not the entire state, is waiting for action from three men.

Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver hold the future of rent laws in their hands, and nothing else will be done in Albany until the issue is decided.

"Everything is held hostage to [the rent debate]," said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), a governmental watchdog organization. "The budget, welfare reform and all of the other needs of New Yorkers are tied up in one giant negotiation. To state it simply, it’s a disgrace."

When reached in his Albany office on Tuesday and asked what was happening in the capital, West Side Assemblyman Scott Stringer said, "Absolutely nothing."

As Stringer was speaking, Pataki was preparing to attend a $2,500-per-person fundraiser at the ritzy Meadow Brook Golf Club on Long Island. But, alas, he didn’t attend. And Bruno was vowing that he would not agree to a temporary extension of the June 15 rent law deadline "even if the governor asks for one." A negotiation session between the big three on Tuesday yielded no movement in the deadlock.

This train is rapidly approaching a steep cliff.

Pataki has put forward a vacancy decontrol plan removing rent limits on apartments when a tenants moves or dies. The plan includes a luxury decontrol measure lifting limits on tenants earning $175,000 or more, and a tenant harassment measure establishing new civil and criminal penalties on landlords who harass tenants.

Bruno’s vacancy decontrol plan is similar to Pataki’s plan, except that it puts the luxury decontrol ceiling at $125,000 and scales back succession rights to cover only spouses, parents and children, and only for a single generation.

Silver advocates keeping the laws as they are. He has vowed not to give in on vacancy decontrol.

In the past few weeks, there has been very little movement in the positions.

Tenant advocates continue to target downstate legislators like Bronx state Sen. Guy Velella, a Republican, who voted against the April 7 motion to bring a debate on rent laws to the floor of the Senate. Over the weekend scores of tenants blanketed his district, knocking on doors and canvassing pedestrians.

But as the clock ticks, more and more attention is focused on the three legislative leaders.

"Because of the way Albany is structured – the legislature is very leadership dominated – a dozen people are making the decisions," said Horner. "The top staff of the three leaders are making all the tough calls. There is a lot of work at the lower staff levels. But they all get to a point, the glass ceiling, which they can’t penetrate. … I have never seen the legislature as dysfunctional as I see it now."

Meanwhile, tenants fear the worst.

"People are terrified," said Dawn Sullivan, president of the East Side Tenants Coalition. "Numerous people have told me that they would commit suicide [if rent laws expire]. People are going to cardiologists, gastrointestinal specialists. They are taking tranquilizers, sleeping pills."

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said earlier in the week he was putting together a plan to protect tenants if rent laws die. Money would be set aside for protection against eviction and harassment.

Sullivan says tenants who lived through the 1971-74 vacancy decontrol years are more acutely aware of the stark possibilities of the end of rent laws.

"The stories I have heard on harassment are so bad that I won’t print them in our newsletter because it would give landlords ideas," she said. "Pataki and Bruno just don’t get it. [Even with stiffer civil and criminal penalties] you’d have to have someone with a tenant 24 hours a day to prove the charges. Hideous things happen at 3 o’clock in the morning."

East Side Rep. Carolyn Maloney noted at a weekend press conference, "Harassment takes many forms including turning off heat and hot water and hiring professional goon squads to terrorize tenants out of their homes. [Manhattan District Attorney Robert] Morgenthau and [Brooklyn DA Charles] Hynes have said these types of harassment cases are extremely difficult to prosecute."

Legislators like Stringer continue to vow to fight until the bloody end. He says he has already figured out the train schedules to insure that he will be in Albany, ready to vote, on June 15 at midnight.

"I think the rejuvenated tenant movement has done an incredible job of raising the consciousness of legislators and the media to the pitfalls of the weakening of rent regulations," said Stringer. "And I am hopeful that cool heads will prevail. I have never seen this kind of level of concern by people – both in rent-regulated apartments and non-rent-regulated apartments. Everybody recognizes that these laws should not be weakened.

"If the legislature is truly representative of the will of the people, on Sunday night we should be prepared to do the right thing."

The conventional wisdom, though, holds that serious negotiations won’t begin until rent laws expire. It’s been that way in Albany in recent years. The budget deadline is routinely ignored. The state’s business is routinely pushed into the summer. No one can remember the last time a budget was passed on time.

As a result, said Horner, the state’s taxpayers get hit with a "double whammy." Not only is state’s business put off until the very last minute, but when the time comes for the drafting of legislation there is little time for serious consideration of the issues. The result: bad legislation.

"The single biggest accomplishment is that it has been another record-breaking session for campaign fund-raisers," said Horner. "That’s all that is getting done."

Bruno Really a Free Marketeer?
Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno repeatedly says that market forces should determine rents in New York City. Rent regulations hamper the spirit of capitalism, he says.

But what about upstate farms? What does Bruno think about the government helping farmers circumvent the kinds of market forces that make it difficult to stay in business?

He’s all for it, according to West Side State Sen. Franz Leichter.

Leichter said Bruno supports subsidies for upstate farmers to the tune of $100 million a year. Bruno supports a number of programs that provide farmers with tax credits and exemptions.

For example, the Agricultural Districts Law saves farmers more than $50 million a year, according to the state Department of Agriculture. The law limits a farm’s assessment to its actual use value rather than its fair market value.

What it does, in effect, is exempt a farm’s non-agricultural value from local real property taxes, Leichter said.

In addition, farmers also benefit from a provision in the state’s tax law that allows farmers to take a 10-year property tax exemption for newly constructed or reconstructed agricultural structures. Tax exemptions are not provided to farmers based on need, Leichter noted.

Further, the Farmer School Tax Credit enables farmers to receive a 100-percent credit for their school taxes. The credit, which goes in effect this year, initially gives farmers who own up to 100 acres a 100-percent tax credit, while farmers with larger farms can receive a 50-percent credit.

The measure will cost $38 million this year and $62 million a year by the time it is fully implemented in the year 2000.

A spokesman for Bruno did not return a phone call by press time.

— Peter Duffy

Goodman Says Bruno is Will Give In – But No Evidence Yet Exists

East Side State Sen. Roy Goodman, after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno on Monday, said he feels the upstate legislator is "further softening his position" on the expiration of rent regulations.

Bruno has called for a vacancy decontrol plan which would end rent laws within a decade or so. The position is milder than Bruno’s original "Christmas declaration," as Goodman called it, to let rent laws die on June 15.

"He is willing to consider other modifications," said Goodman on Tuesday.

But, as of press time, Bruno had announced no change in his position.

Indeed, he reiterated his threat to let rent laws if Silver and Pataki do not move further to his way of thinking.

If he is willing to bend, he is not making his intentions public.

Goodman also said that Bronx state Sen. Guy Velella and Westchester Sen. Nicholas Spano, two Republican legislators who voted against the April 7 motion to the bring a debate on rent laws to the floor of the Senate, were on the side of tenants.

"I think we have firmed up Velella and Spano," Goodman said.

Goodman called on Pataki, Bruno and Silver to participate in round-the-clock discussions to prevent the expiration of the laws. Goodman said he would be working on the issue "incessantly" until Sunday night. The members of the Senate Majority Conference are scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. that night to discuss the plan for the evening.

Goodman and Queens Sen. Frank Padavan were the only Republicans to buck party leadership and vote for the April 7 motion.

Meanwhile, on Thursday hordes of tenants will descend on Pataki’s Manhattan office. The march will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Real Estate Board of New York, at 12 E. 41st St., and make its way to Pataki’s office at 633 Third Avenue and 41st Street.