Clock ticking on talks to end rent-law impasse

Albany Times Union, June 15, 1997
ALBANY -- For state leaders and millions of tenants, today is D-Day at the Capitol.

And midnight is H-Hour.

The state's controversial rent laws -- which artificially reduce rents for 2.7 million tenants in New York City, thousands in Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties and a smattering in Erie County and the Capital Region -- are due to expire at midnight.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican free-market enthusiast from Rensselaer County, is demanding drastic reforms to the rent regulations. And he says the laws will expire completely unless Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, agrees to reforms.

"If you want the truth, I'm nervous. People are getting frightened and panicky,'' said Pat Klotzman, a 73-year-old tenant who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment in Hastings on Hudson, Westchester County. "I think it's wrong that Senator Bruno has so much power. He is so adamant, and fails to see the chaos and displacement it will bring about.''

Klotzman is planning to travel to Albany today to observe the dramatic final moments. She's also planning to stay over in Albany to participate in a protest outside Gov. George Pataki's mansion Monday if the laws expire.

Busloads of tenants are expected to roll into Albany at 6 p.m. Assembly members have been told to report to the Capitol at 8 p.m. unless they're called in earlier, and Senators are scheduled to arrive at 7 p.m. The state's 211 lawmakers will be on hand to vote, at a moment's notice, in case the leaders reach an agreement.

Pataki, Bruno and Silver are scheduled to resume talks at 10:30 this morning. They didn't begin serious talks until Friday, when they were already in the shadow of the looming deadline. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Silver -- an Orthodox Jew -- was unavailable as he observed the Sabbath.

"It's a positive sign that we are having realistic discussions,'' Bruno said Saturday. "However, we must make a tremendous amount of progress in a very short period of time to avert the immediate decontrol of every regulated apartment after midnight on Sunday. There will be no short- or long-term extensions of the current law.''

Until Friday, Silver was demanding that the laws be renewed without change. But on Friday, he said he would allow some reforms. Silver wants the Legislature to temporarily extend the existing laws while they craft a compromise, but Bruno says he won't allow an extension.

Pataki on Saturday signed an executive order appointing Attorney General Dennis Vacco as a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute landlords who harass tenants if the laws lapse tonight.

Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, said Pataki's order "will do about as much to keep landlord harassment in line as a note from their favorite aunt.''

All other legislative business, including the adoption of the now-76-day-late state budget, has been paralyzed by the rent debate. Tenant activists have been calling the battle Showdown '97, and political observers say they don't remember any state issue in the recent past that has been quite this dramatic.

"It's a worrisome situation. I know people who are thinking of doubling up, moving in with their children, going to other locations. It's a wait-and-see situation,'' said Klotzman. "I hope they come to their senses. We're talking about millions of people.''