Bruno now wants to include gays under rent control

Albany Times Union, June 12, 1997
ALBANY -- Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno softened his stance on rent regulations Wednesday, stunning the gay community with a pronouncement that he would favor continued protections for homosexual partners of tenants.

"If you're talking about immediate families, these are families,'' Bruno said. "These are people living with significant others and they consider themselves families, whether they're married or not. I think that argument's pretty persuasive.''

Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, has previously called homosexuality an "abnormal lifestyle.'' He has consistently thwarted bills that would grant civil rights or protections to gays. He said Wednesday that he changed his rent stance after consulting with other Republican senators.

"We're stunned,'' said Paula Ettelbrick, legislative counsel for the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's statewide gay political organization. "I think we're going to make T-shirts with the quote on it so it doesn't go away. This is the most remarkable political conversion I've ever seen on a gay issue. Sen. Bruno has finally come into line with what the majority of New Yorkers think.''

The rent laws, which artificially reduce rents for 2.7 million tenants in New York City, are due to expire at midnight June 15. Bruno is demanding drastic reforms, and is threatening that the laws will lapse without those reforms.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is resisting. All other legislative business, including the adoption of a now-73-day-late state budget, has been paralyzed by the rent debate.

Bruno has changed his position several times since last December, when he called for a two-year phaseout of the laws and continued protections for the disabled and elderly. Since then, he said he'd agree to a longer-term phaseout, provide exemptions for poor tenants and allow succession rights to a tenant's husband, wife, parent and child.

On Wednesday he expanded his succession list to include "domestic partners,'' stepchildren, stepparents and siblings. He also said he would agree with Pataki's income threshold of $175,000, which would abolish rent protections for tenants earning more than that amount. The current threshold is $250,000; Bruno previously wanted to reduce it to $125,000.

Bruno, known for his charm and self-deprecating wit, has joked with the press corps about the frequent changes in his position.

"All I'm doing, apparently, is talking to myself,'' Bruno said Tuesday. "That's fun at times -- I like to talk to myself sometimes and negotiate with myself. You know why? I agree with myself much of the time.''

But some think Bruno, with his continued softening, has a strategy: He's hoping that tenants, seeing his flexibility, will blame Silver if the laws expire Sunday.

"His strategy is to let them expire,'' speculated Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "He's saying the tenants will turn on Shelly. He's banking on that happening.''

Silver, an Orthodox Jew, was unreachable Wednesday as he observed the religious holiday of Shavuot. But he has said repeatedly that he would refuse to agree to "vacancy decontrol,'' still the linchpin of the Pataki-Bruno plan. Under vacancy decontrol, rent regulations would be lifted when a tenant dies or moves out -- unless a family member is left behind in the apartment.

Silver has steadfastly refused to budge at all, demanding continuation of the existing laws. Now, Bruno is almost in total agreement with the "compromise plan'' forwarded by Pataki.

Democrats say Pataki, the only leader with a citywide and statewide constituency, will take the blame if the laws expire. Pataki said Wednesday that he would do everything he could to forge an agreement before Sunday. Both the Assembly and Senate are expected to be in session Sunday evening as the midnight deadline draws near.