Lose-lose on rent laws

Albany Times Union, June 18, 1997
Despite claims of victory by all sides, the outcome only adds to the notion that state government is dysfunctional Governor Pataki tried to put the best face on an embarrassing situation when he proclaimed the midnight-hour accord on state rent control laws a ''victory for all New Yorkers.'' Most New Yorkers would see it otherwise -- not as a victory but as a clear defeat for responsible political leadership. Once again, the legislative process appears dysfunctional -- hopelessly mired in gridlock.

Who can blame the public for being cynical? After all the posturing and threats, after all the anxiety caused to millions of tenants, what have the legislative leaders and the governor got to show in the way of results? The compromise worked out in the early morning hours Monday is little more than a half-step toward progress -- and no step at all in addressing the serious need to provide more affordable housing in New York City.

Under the compromise, landlords will be able to raise rents within certain parameters, and tenants will no longer be able to pass on leases to distant relatives ad infinitum. Yet many controlled units will remain a bargain compared with market rates. Meanwhile, the new regulations will remain in place for six years, thereby removing the pressure to explore ways to create more housing in a city that desperately needs it.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, was wrong from the start to use rent control as a club to wrest budget concessions from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan. The two are separate issues and should have been treated as such.

Mr. Silver, meanwhile, was wrong to dig in his heels and insist the old laws be extended on a permanent basis. Though he eventually compromised somewhat, he managed to achieve most of his objective of putting off real reform for at least six more years.

Governor Pataki tried to find a middle ground, but with polls showing him as the target of tenant -- read voter -- wrath, he abandoned his ground in the interest of achieving an agreement.

Of course, there were political factors at play. Mr. Bruno, for example, has been portrayed as beholden to landlords who had spread money around in an effort to end the rent laws. Mr. Silver was portrayed as a captive of the tenant lobby. He was also criticized for engaging in a game of political chicken rather than proposing constructive solutions to New York City's housing shortage.

Mr. Pataki was too late in coming to the table. Had he been out front with his call for gradual decontrol, he would have added a welcome counterbalance to Mr. Bruno.

Alas, it didn't happen. So chalk it up as lose-lose-lose.