Rent law debate widens upstate-NYC schism
Friction, rhetoric intensify as fight over issue continues

by Sarah Metzgar
Albany Times Union, June 11, 1997
ALBANY -- On Monday, Assemblyman Pat Casale of Schaghticoke suggested an upstate-downstate divorce.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver lambasted upstater Casale and suggested that Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno from Brunswick stop meddling in downstate business.

"He has absolutely no knowledge of what goes on in New York City; he has no experience,'' said Silver, a Manhattan Democrat. "The mayor, myself, the comptroller, the public advocate, every elected official from the city of New York -- Democrat and Republican -- tells him he's wrong.''

Bruno has been the driving force in the heated debate over rent laws. The controversial regulations, due to expire midnight Sunday, artificially reduce rent for 2.7 million tenants in New York City. Bruno is demanding drastic reforms.

"I think I understand the rent issue . . . I understand the emotions. I understand the feelings,'' Bruno said. "And I also understand when people get subsidized for years and years they see it as an entitlement. I don't fault them for that. If government allows them to get a gratuity of sorts, that's to their benefit. But I don't agree that it is proper, and we are going to change it.''

Pataki and Bruno said staffers made headway Tuesday on the state budget, which is now 72 days late, and delayed by the dispute over rent regulations. But the upstate-downstate friction was evident.

Silver angrily responded to a Casale quote that appeared in the Tuesday Times Union, where the Republican Casale called for New York City to secede from New York state.

"That's ridiculous. The state would go bankrupt,'' Silver said. "All of that nonsense about New York City being a drain on the state is ridiculous. It's the financial capital of the world, it's the international home of the United Nations, it's the entertainment capital, it's the communications capital, and the rest of the state lives off it.''

Silver is vehemently resisting Bruno's reform package. The laws are likely to expire, both sides agree, before some kind of agreement is reached. Tenants, most of them protected by leases, aren't likely to feel the consequences for weeks or even months.

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. Gov. George Pataki advocates a middle ground: Lowering the luxury-income threshold to $175,000 and allowing vacancy decontrol, but continuing existing succession rights to homosexual 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.

Bruno, in a surprise reversal, said Tuesday that he may not immediately put his bill up for a vote in the Senate. "I am not going to expose my members any more than I have to,'' he said. He said he was asked by "more than one'' to hold off on a vote.

Bruno has 35 Republican members in his conference, and needs 31 votes to pass his bill -- he can't expect any assistance from the 26 Democrats. Seven downstate Republican senators, who have to answer to rent-regulated constituents, are under intense pressure on this issue.

So far, two of them -- Roy Goodman of Manhattan and Frank Padavan of Queens -- have announced their plan to vote against the Bruno bill. Bruno can afford to lose only two more members, and three are refusing to commit to the Bruno plan -- Guy Velella of the Bronx, Serphin Maltese of Queens and Nicholas Spano of Westchester County.

"I'm not going to take a position yet as to whether I'll vote for the bill,'' Spano said recently. "That will be a decision I'll make at the final hour.''

Sen. Dean Skelos of Nassau County says he plans to support the Bruno bill, and Sen. John Marchi of Staten Island also is expected to toe the party line.

"Decontrolling tenants would make sacrificial lambs of some of his downstate members,'' said tenant activist Billy Easton, executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "He's at a position of political weakness with his own members.''

Some Democrats wonder whether Bruno's bill could even make it out of the Senate Rules Committee, where Goodman and Padavan hold crucial votes.

The rent debate has paralyzed all other legislative business, and even kept Pataki away from a fund-raising golf outing during the day Tuesday. But although the governor didn't make it for the golf portion of the outing, he was hoping to attend the dinner afterwards.

Democrats criticized Pataki for the $2,500-per-person fund raiser, and noted that it was put together by real estate mogul Charles Urstadt, also known as the "father of vacancy decontrol'' for his work as housing commissioner under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

John Caher contributed to this report.