No lease on life for rent control

by Dan Lynch
Albany Times Union, June 15, 1997
Flanked by a squad of aides, Joe Bruno strode purposefully through the green-carpeted lobby outside the state Senate chamber. His expression was grim -- his mouth a tight, taut line across his face.

I was plopped in one of the fancy chairs outside the chamber, jabbering away on my pocket phone. The Senate majority leader spotted me and stopped. I put away the phone and went over. He'd just emerged from one of those maddening meetings with George Pataki and Shelly Silver.

The topic? Rent control, naturally. That's what has ground New York state government to a halt. We're three months overdue on a state budget. Bills, major and minor, languish in committee.

Zip, zero, nada. That's what'll happen at the Capitol until this rent control crisis is resolved. Which, apparently, won't be anytime soon.

"How'd it go?'' I asked Joe Bruno.

He rolled his eyes in frustration. "Shelly won't talk. He won't say anything. I'd say, 'Shelly, how can you defend a system like this? How can you let this go on the way it's going?' And he'd just look at me and wouldn't say anything -- not a word.''

If you can find somebody to handle action on this topic, bet big that Bruno, the governor and Silver, the Assembly speaker, will reach no agreement on rent control before the current law expires.

That agonized scream you'll hear at midnight Sunday will be rent control going over the cliff. That's the expression they use at the Capitol to describe the statute's expiration. It means that, come Monday morning, more than 2 million tenants in the New York metropolitan area will face huge rent hikes when their leases are up.

Rent control was born with the end of World War II. With vets returning home to hunt for jobs in a shrinking, post-wartime economy -- and scrambling for housing at the same time -- rent control made perfect sense.

Then, it did. But every three years -- each time the system was scheduled to expire -- legislators from the city howled. Who's going to vote for somebody who essentially voted to have rents raised on his constituents?

So, in the age of MTV and the Internet, New York is the only city left in America with Roosevelt-era rent control. Three-fourths of the city residents alive when the system was created have gone to that great golden city in the sky. Rent control lives on.

As a result, most apartments now built in the city are luxury units, exempt from the system. Middle-class housing the developers build in Jersey or Florida. Six thousand new housing units are created annually in a city where 10,000 a year are abandoned.

Rent control kills development and stifles tax revenue. Who makes up the difference? Suburbanites and upstaters.

But you don't take a 50-year-old system whose sudden demise threatens the homes of millions and just pull the plug on it. That's stone lunacy.

Nonetheless, it looks like that's what'll happen.

Bruno wants rent control eradicated over time. He has backed off on point after point to get a deal. But Shelly Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, will consider no modification of the socialistic system that strangles the greatest city on Earth.

It must endure indefinitely. He'll accept no other alternative -- except the system's sudden, violent death. That, he apparently surmises, could arm him with a huge club to swing if he runs for governor next year.

Especially if he can hang this outrage on the people who are really trying to negotiate.

Dan Lynch's column appears regularly in this space. He can be reached at 454-5412.