Tenants in NYC vow to get even

So far, 8 of 59 community boards have voted to boycott upstate products if rent control expires

SARAH METZGAR, Capitol bureau
Albany Times Union, June 4, 1997

ALBANY -- Eight community boards in New York City, said to represent almost 1 million people, have voted to boycott upstate products if state officials don't renew rent laws by June 15.

If the state's rent laws are allowed to expire, New York City residents plan to use their pocketbooks to exact retribution on upstate lawmakers, a boycott leader in the city says. They threaten to stop buying IBM computers, Kodak film, General Electric appliances, cheese from upstate dairy farms and Oneida flatware.

And that's just the beginning of the list.

"The people of New York (City) are ready to take action,'' said Neile Weissman, a rent-regulated tenant from the lower East Side of Manhattan, who is masterminding the boycott.

Business leaders, political officials and even the state's major tenant group have criticized and dismissed the boycott threat.

In a letter to the editor published Tuesday in the Times Union, the development coordinator of New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition said the threat was only in the mind of Weissman, "one lonely computer programmer with an overabundance of energy, an excess of spare time, a fax machine and a statewide directory of newspaper editors.''

But so far, eight of 59 community boards in New York City have voted to back the boycott plan: four in the Bronx, two in Manhattan, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn. The most recent board, Brooklyn Community Board No. 3, passed the resolution Monday night by a vote of 39-0.

The community boards in New York City, set up by city law, fill an ombudsman-type role. Board members are appointed by city officials, and Weissman said each board represents about 120,000 city residents.

According to the resolution, each of the eight boards "holds upstate legislators responsible for allowing rent laws to expire. While these legislators have no inherent interest or affected constituencies . . . these legislators are accountable to businesses that derive much of their revenues from downstate consumers.''

The statewide tenant coalition persuaded one community board to rescind the threat. Still, Weissman says the eight boards represent almost 1 million people -- and he hopes to get 20 boards on his side.

The threat started with only dairy products, but has expanded to the other products in recent days.

"The more they add to the list, the more comical it becomes,'' said Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, which is fighting to keep the rent laws. "A boycott, by far, is the most difficult of all organizing strategies. And it's being put together by a guy who probably couldn't organize a block party. We don't take it seriously, and we think it's a bad idea.''

About 2.7 million residents of New York City are covered by the rent laws, which limit what landlords can charge. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, wants to phase out the rent laws -- as does Gov. George Pataki. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wants to continue the laws, but has criticized the boycott threat.

Despite the threat, farmers and business officials say they aren't concerned.

"I don't think IBM has much to worry about,'' said Bob Ward, a spokesman for the state Business Council. "It's hard to believe this will have any noticeable impact. Boycotts, in general, are difficult to organize because most people are more concerned about their day-to-day lives than any given political issue.''

Mark Emery, a spokesman for the state Farm Bureau, said the issue is "almost laughable.''

"We don't have any influence on what happens in rent control, and have never taken any position on it,'' Emery said. "And we don't give money to candidates, so we don't have any influence over legislators.''

And as for Bruno, the target of the tenants' wrath? "He's disappointed,'' said Bruno spokesman John McArdle. "Rather than debate the issue, some tenant advocates are responding in an irresponsible manner. It's unfortunate.''

First published on Wednesday, June 4, 1997