Rent control won't hurt Bruno at all

Albany Electric Times Union, May 4, 1997 (First published)

As this savage rent control fight drags on in the Legislature, it might seem that Joe Bruno is charging headlong through the forest intent on smacking into a tree.

As though the tree might actually budge if he rams it hard enough.

Well, how lucky you are to have me around to enlighten you. What Bruno is really doing is taking the heat for George Pataki and Al D'Amato.

As Senate majority leader, Bruno is the only one of the state's top three Republicans who doesn't have to sweat New York City votes next year. Free of any survival imperative that might instill timidity, Bruno can stand fearless and resolute on the ramparts of this rent control Alamo.

With impunity, he can battle like some demented Davy Crockett in the face of furious assault from tenants' groups.

Hey, Joe Bruno runs next year in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties. There, voters neither reap the benefits of rent control nor care much about it. So he's perfectly willing to be left holding the bag if Pataki and D'Amato ultimately dance daintily down the hawsers, as they might do. It won't cost Bruno a thing.

In case you haven't followed all this, rent control expires June 15. It's a system instituted after World War II to protect returning servicemen and their families from bloodsucking landlords.

A temporary measure, supposedly. Other cities had it, too. They've since abandoned it, however.

But a vote-hungry New York Legislature has extended rent control every three or four years for half a century now. They've fouled the air in the process with relentless gibberish about protecting working-class tenants.

As a practical matter, the way to end rent control is vacancy decontrol -- by permitting existing tenants to enjoy artificially low rents until they move out of their apartments. Landlords can then sock the new tenant with a market-rate rental.

They call that capitalism.

The Democrats don't want to hear about capitalism. With roughly 2.7 million New York City residents covered by rent control, they sense the distant rumble of a groundswell in next year's statewide elections if they can portray D'Amato and Pataki as fawning pawns of the landlords and enemies of working people.

So, the Democratic-controlled Assembly has moved to extend rent control unto the end of time -- for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.

Forget that vacancy decontrol would harm nobody. Forget that rent control has resulted in a severe housing shortage in the city. Forget that whole neighborhoods in New York City are pockmarked by buildings abandoned because landlords couldn't operate in the black.

And forget that rent control has inflicted grievous harm on the city's tax base, costing upstate taxpayers big bucks in state aid to the city.

Votes are to be had in this. That's all that's required for staging this dark, angst-ridden, choke-back-the-tears comedy in the Capitol.

If each side hangs tough, rent control will die in six weeks. The result will be rapidly rising rents across the board. It'll mean a horrendous septic tank explosion likely to splatter both the governor and D'Amato. Already, signs exist that D'Amato, New York's unofficial GOP boss, is developing weak knees.

No, he says now, we shouldn't let rent control expire in just a few years. No, we shouldn't consider a phaseout even over a decade. Vacancy decontrol? Well, maybe -- on high-end, luxury apartments.

Well, nothing new here.

With a few million votes at stake, political principle can disappear faster than the coffee at an AA meeting.