New York City tenants arrive in buses and pin the blame for a move to phase out rent regulations on the GOP, especially the governor

JOHN CAHER State editor
Wednesday, May 21, 1997

ALBANY -- Thousands of New York City-area tenants peacefully yet forcefully demonstrated for continued rent regulations Tuesday, directing much of their wrath toward would-be peacemaker Gov. George Pataki.

Pataki, who last week offered a compromise plan to break the rent-law logjam -- essentially by guaranteeing controls only for those who are already covered, as well as their heirs -- has found himself in the middle of the fray.

If there was one clear message from the demonstrators and supportive politicians, it was that the rent- control buck ultimately stops with the governor -- the only member of the leadership triumvirate who has to run statewide.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat and the governor's chief antagonist on the rent law issue -- and every other issue -- accused the governor of playing a good cop-bad cop game in lockstep with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. That comparison drew cheers from his audience, estimated by organizers as 6,000 to 8,000 strong, although Capital Police say there were more like 2,000 to 2,500.

Bruno, a Brunswick Republican whose district doesn't come anywhere near New York City, proposed eliminating rent laws last December, well before the governor suggested his compromise plan.

``It is the old good cop-bad cop scenario,'' Silver told the crowd. ``Majority Leader Bruno, the front man, started out threatening to let the rent laws expire while the governor sat back, said nothing and let you suffer. Then the governor rides in like the cavalry to save the day. . . . They played with you.''

Bruno's response: ``I don't consider myself a bad cop or a bad guy. I consider myself responsible, responsive, trying to do the right thing, and I believe we are doing the right thing for the great majority of people in the city and the state.''

Pataki did not respond directly or issue a press release. However, he was cornered by constituents, activists and reporters at various locations on Tuesday and, according to transcripts released by his press office, accused Silver and tenant groups of exploiting residents ``as pawns'' and leading them to believe that they will be evicted or hit with huge rent increases if his proposal is adopted.

``I am very disappointed that people have used this for political reasons to frighten people, as opposed to trying to come up with a practical solution,'' Pataki said, according to a transcript released by his press office. ``I believe the plan that I have outlined is a fair and practical solution. Literally, 99 percent of the tenants who presently have rent protection in New York City will continue it under my plan.''

The state's rent laws, due to expire midnight June 15, apply to 1.1 million apartments and 2.7 million tenants, mostly in New York City. The laws, a remnant of federal rent regulations from the housing-shortage days of World War II, limit what landlords can charge.

Bruno, more than anyone else, is insisting on dramatic changes in the rent regulations. The majority leader said that if the Assembly doesn't come up with a compromise plan by June 15, residents of New York will be left without any rent protections.

``We started with one objective and we are going to accomplish that objective,'' Bruno said. ``We are going to transition out of rent regulation as we know it today. . . . We are going to do it this year.''

But demonstrators and their leaders were clearly targeting Pataki, rather than Bruno, as the prime enemy. Hundreds wore stickers stating: ``Pataki = Eviction.'' Protesters with megaphones riled the crowd with anti-Pataki slogans. Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, compared the governor to a tricky magician.

``Governor Magic, we don't like your tricks,'' Easton loudly proclaimed to the cheering crowd. ``George Pataki -- poof! -- disappear George Pataki.''

Several of the speakers at a noontime rally attempted to portray the battle as class warfare, or a matter in which Pataki and Bruno are unfairly injecting state politics into what is really a local issue.

But rent control costs New York state taxpayers approximately $12 million to regulate, drawing on the resources of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Republicans are quick to point out that current laws shield people earning up to $250,000 annually -- a group Silver calls middle class -- from rents at market rates.

In addition, Republicans say, the rent laws force landlords to abandon up to 19,000 housing units annually because they cannot get a reasonable return on their investment. They say the city of New York spends $2.2 million and 19 years making the abandoned units salable.

Bruno said his support for Pataki's compromise proposal stops at the point where heirs have a right to inhabit rent-shielded dwellings.

``I believe in people being able to pass on property that they own,'' Bruno said. ``I don't believe in people being able to pass on property . . . that they don't own. . . . Common sense tells me if someone doesn't own something, they don't have a right to leave it to generation after generation after generation.''

Sarah Metzgar contributed to this story.