Bruno's rent law reforms draw fire

GOP Senate leader unveils a plan that angers tenants, New York City Democrats and homosexuals

SARAH METZGAR
Albany Times Union, June 5, 1997

ALBANY -- Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno unveiled his plan Wednesday to reform the state's controversial rent laws, hoping to end the political logjam on the soon-to-expire rent rules and the 66-day-late state budget.

Bruno, a Republican from Rensselaer County, angered tenants, New York City Democrats and homosexuals with his plan, which calls for abolishing rent regulations for people making more than $125,000 a year (the threshold is now $250,000), and instituting "vacancy decontrol.'' Under Bruno's vacancy decontrol plan, landlords could begin charging market rent when an apartment is vacated, unless a tenant dies and leaves the apartment to a husband, wife, parent or child.

The rent laws, which artificially reduce rents for 2.7 million tenants in New York City, expire at midnight June 15.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, wants to renew the existing laws. Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, advocates a middle ground: Lowering the luxury income threshold to $175,000 and allowing vacancy decontrol, but continuing existing succession rights to gay and lesbian partners, spouses, children, stepchildren, grandchildren, in-laws, parents and grandparents -- just about anyone who can prove an emotional commitment and financial interdependence with the tenant.

Although the Senate is scheduled to end its session next Wednesday, Bruno said he's willing to keep the senators in town and work up to the June 15 deadline.

"We have 11 days to negotiate -- we can negotiate 24 hours a day for the next 11 days,'' Bruno said. "But when we get to midnight (June 15), this law is going to expire. There will be no extenders. None. Not for a minute, not for an hour, not for a day, not for a week.''

Bruno is believed to have the 31 votes he needs to pass his bill. But it would squeak through, because there is some dissent from downstate Republican members.

"I have the votes to pass this bill,'' Bruno said. "Anyone who thinks that we haven't is going to miscalculate.''

Silver said he wouldn't allow vacancy decontrol. "I do not accept vacancy decontrol as a way to conclude this debate, plain and simple,'' Silver said. "It is the end of control. It's either 'Do you want instant death or slow death?' ''

Bruno has softened his original stance from last December, which called for abolishing rent regulations within two years. He estimates his new plan, which he calls a "position of moderation,'' would phase out the 70-to-80 percent of the rent-regulated apartments within 12-14 years. Tenant activists claim otherwise.

"Vacancy decontrol would rapidly decontrol 50 percent of New Yorkers within five years,'' said Billy Easton, executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition.

About 1.1 apartments in New York City are "stabilized'' under the rent laws, and another 70,000 are under stricter "rent control.'' The laws extend to Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties, and -- to a much lesser degree -- Buffalo and Albany.

Bruno says the rent laws are unfair to non-regulated tenants, who are paying market rents and subsidizing their regulated neighbors. He says the laws are also unfair to taxpayers, because it costs $12 million to administer the program and because New York City needs more state aid to compensate for its depressed housing market.

Bruno met with Silver and Pataki Wednesday afternoon to talk about the looming rent-law deadline -- and a June 20 budget deadline. The state's 1997-98 budget was due on April 1, but leaders agreed to two six-week extenders. The second extender expires on June 20.

"There is now a serious effort to try to resolve differences, both on the budget and on rent control. The progress is slow, but we're talking,'' Pataki said. "We're going to look to try to get a budget by June 20. There's still very real difference, but there's a lot of hard work now going on at the staff level that will continue tonight and tomorrow. If we don't make June 20, there will be no more long-term extenders. . . . We did two long-term extenders in the hopes that it would allow the staffs to concentrate on closing the gaps. It didn't happen. Now it's a week at a time. Let's get the budget done, get it resolved, and let people know where the state stands.''

First published on Thursday, June 5, 1997