Leaders reach pact on rent laws

Albany Times Union, June 16, 1997

Controls expired at midnight, but Pataki, Silver and Bruno reach an agreement in principle on new rules

ALBANY -- The state's controversial rent laws expired at 12:01 a.m. today, but state leaders who spent all day Sunday in closed-door meetings said they have reached "conceptual agreement'' to impose new rules.

The legislative leaders said their houses would meet to pass a bill today. But the leaders and key aides were still meeting early this morning to resolve details of the legislation.

The rent laws had artificially reduced rents for 2.7 million tenants in New York City -- as well as thousands of tenants in Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties and a smattering in the Capital Region and Erie County.

Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver met through the day and into the night Sunday, breaking several times to talk to reporters.

"The ability to have a solution is there, but we haven't found it,'' a beleaguered Pataki told reporters at 7:40 p.m.

Legislative leaders and their top aides were still ironing out the details of the package in the wee hours of the morning. But according to a highly placed legislative official, the compromise calls for: lowering the income threshold of tenants eligible to receive the benefit; creating a vacancy "bump-up'' that would allow landlords to hike rents closer to market value when an apartment is vacated; cracking down on landlords who harass tenants, and prohibiting any rent regulations from being imposed on new construction.

Observers saw the compromise as a victory for Silver. Bruno had claimed repeatedly that he wouldn't consider anything less than full vacancy decontrol, which would have completely deregulated apartments as they were vacated, and he was unsuccessful. Instead, landlords merely will be allowed to boost rents -- according to a complex formula -- for apartments that have been regulated for more than eight years.

The income threshold -- the cap above which tenants wouldn't qualify for rent regulation -- currently is pegged at $250,000, and is likely to be lowered to either $195,000 or $175,000, an official said.

The battle over rent laws has held up progress on virtually every other major issue since the state Legislature convened six months ago. Bruno, a Brunswick Republican, set up the fight late last year when he vowed a quick phase-out of the rent regulations. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, resisted fiercely, and Pataki, a Republican, has been trying to broker a compromise.

As midnight neared, some senators said Bruno was under intense pressure from some of his fellow Republicans who represent rent-regulated constituents to soften his stance.

The evening at the Capitol was strange and nerve-racking.

State lawmakers in business suits and ties ambled around the Capitol Sunday night and waited for word. Scores of tenants from the New York City area, wearing their trademark pink hats, gathered on the State Street side of the Capitol and lit candles as dusk approached.

"We've got our candles and we're going to be praying,'' said New York City Councilman Guillermo Linares, who traveled up to Albany with a group of tenants from his district.

Lobbyists, legislative staffers and other political hangers-on reported for work Sunday evening dressed for a regular business day -- but most of them had nothing to do.

Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, already on notice from Pataki that she is going to be dumped from his re-election ticket next year, joined a tenant rally and attacked her estranged colleague.

"It is kind of surreal,'' said state Sen. Neil Breslin, a Democrat from Albany County.

Longtime political observers said they did not recall any issue in recent memory that had so paralyzed all other legislative business. There has been scant talk of other important issues facing state leaders, such as the 77-day-late state budget and the welfare law changes that the federal government requires to be in place by July 1.

Some angry tenants didn't participate in the protests organized by the major advocacy group, the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. Instead, they prepared to start a boycott, at 12:01 a.m. today, of products from districts represented by anti-rent-law Republican senators.

The ringleader of the boycott, Neile Weissman, issued a list of boycott targets, including the city of Saratoga Springs, which is represented by Bruno, and products from General Electric Co. in Schenectady.

"This is not going to be a big bang, by any means. It's going to be a slow word of mouth,'' Weissman said. "But if this goes on for a week or so, a lot of people are going to start looking at the boycott with a whole different point of view.''

Ten community boards in New York City, each representing about 120,000 people, back the boycott.

"I find it kind of interesting that with all the fear and concern about landlords harassing tenants in New York City, we have tenants harassing the citizens of Saratoga Springs,'' said J. Michael O'Connell, mayor of the Spa City. "I don't like threats, either in the city of New York or the city of Saratoga Springs.''

Bruno last week softened his earlier position and joined Pataki in a call for a phase-out of the laws, deregulating apartments when tenants move out, die or are evicted -- a practice known as "vacancy decontrol.'' The two also called for dropping rent limits for the wealthy.

Silver, who initially called for renewal of the laws without change, moved a bit this weekend and said he would be willing to accept a law that would increase the "vacancy bonus,'' which allows landlords to boost the rent by a set percentage when an apartment becomes vacant.

Staff writer Bechetta Jackson contributed to this report.