Rent control wrangling may force Sunday vote

by Sarah Metzger
Albany Times Union, June 10, 1997
Legislators make plans for a weekend session in Albany as law nears expiration

ALBANY -- State lawmakers are expected to be in session Sunday night in case leaders reach a last-minute agreement on New York's controversial rent laws, but the odds of reaching an agreement before midnight Sunday are looking slim.

"I think we are headed towards the cliff, where we will have full deregulation past midnight on June 15th,'' said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican. "Then it'll be a question of 'whose fault is it?' I will continue to say it's the speaker and the Democrats who control the Assembly.''

The rent debate is frightening downstate tenants and paralyzing progress on all other legislative business. The state budget now is 71 days late, and Gov. George Pataki is preparing another emergency spending bill to replace the one that expires June 20.

The rent laws, which artificially reduce rents for 2.7 million tenants in New York City, expire at midnight June 15. Both Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have alerted the 209 other state lawmakers that they can expect to be in the Capitol Sunday night.

"I have indicated to them that they will be here -- that on Sunday they can prepare to be in Albany,'' said Silver, a Manhattan Democrat. "I apologized to them that it's Father's Day, because they may have celebrations or family outings.''

Before the Sunday deadline, negotiating time is limited. Silver, an Orthodox Jew, will be observing Shavuoth -- a holiday commemorating God's giving the Ten Commandments to Moses -- from sundown Tuesday to sundown Thursday, and the regular weekly Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. At noon today, Gov. Pataki is slated to be the star attraction at the $2,500-per-person "Second Annual Governor's Cup Golf Outing'' at the Meadow Brook Golf Club in Jericho, Nassau County.

If Pataki plays golf at his fund-raiser today, he'll be taking some heat from Democrats and tenants. The New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition plans to stage a small protest at the country club.

"It sends the wrong message, less than a week before the rent laws expire, to be out there relaxing and playing golf,'' said Billy Easton, executive director of the tenants' group.

Easton also hit a letter that Pataki sent to rent-regulated tenants, claiming it glossed over his plan.

Bruno wants to abolish rent regulations for people making more than $125,000 a year (the threshold is now $250,000), and institute "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.

Silver wants to renew the existing laws. Pataki 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.

About 1.1 million apartments in New York City are "stabilized'' under the laws; 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.

Silver and Bruno met for an hour Monday with Pataki. All three men reported no progress.

"Mr. Silver has not moved one iota in seven months,'' Pataki complained.