Weighing the price of rent deal

by SARAH METZGAR
Albany Times Union, June 17, 1997
ALBANY -- Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has been playing a high-stakes game of political poker for months, and observers Monday were wondering whether he lost the hand completely or if he had a wild card yet to play.

Was he bluffing? Did he overplay his hand?

Although Bruno appeared to weaken at the final hour Sunday on his demands to reform the state's rent laws, he may have a wild card left to play later for other initiatives, including several that would have an impact on the Capital Region.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was the clear winner when he reached a last-minute pact with Bruno and Gov. George Pataki on new rent regulations.

The previous rent laws, which artificially reduced rents for 2.7 million tenants in New York City, expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Bruno, Pataki and Silver, after meeting behind closed doors all day and night Sunday, reached a conceptual agreement shortly after midnight.

"This is a tremendous victory for New Yorkers,'' a relieved Pataki pronounced at a Monday morning news conference. "I'm very, very pleased we've been able to reach this tremendous resolution.''

The rent-control bill, being drafted by the leaders' top lawyers, is taking some time to prepare, and the top aides couldn't get the agreement into bill form by the end of the day. Both houses hope to pass the legislation today. "We're going through the usual peaks and valleys of complicated bill-drafting,'' Silver said late Monday.

Silver said he was "delighted'' with the agreement, which continues rent protections but exempts tenants who make more than $175,000 a year and allows landlords to hike rents by 20 percent when an apartment becomes vacant.

Insiders said Bruno, under intense pressure from fellow Republicans who represent rent-regulated tenants, was forced to fold. But at a Monday afternoon news conference, Bruno tried to put a positive spin on things.

"I know some of you like to play the winners-and-losers game, and who caved and who got bashed, and who got sandbagged and who got you-know-what,'' Bruno said. "We accomplished what we set out to accomplish. . . . Did we do everything we wanted to do? No. Do I feel like I have been in any way abused? No. . . . I am comfortable and content, contrary to some of the reports.''

Bruno vowed, back in December, to end existing rent regulations. For the next six months he repeatedly demanded vacancy decontrol, which would have deregulated apartments completely as tenants died or moved out. But Bruno conceded late Sunday night as the midnight deadline approached.

Bruno's strident, take-no-prisoners approach made some of his fellow Republicans -- Pataki, U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato and seven downstate Republican senators -- extremely vulnerable to Election Day retribution from rent-regulated constituents.

"There was a great deal of controversy within his conference,'' said Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition. "We'll never know whether (the pressure on Bruno) was a sincere commitment to tenant protections or the political fallout they were experiencing in their districts.''

It remains unknown what -- if anything -- Bruno will get in return for falling on his sword. All three sides say there were no trade-offs or linkages, but sources said Pataki may have privately agreed to push for some of the senator's pet projects and proposals during upcoming budget negotiations.

"We didn't cut any deals,'' Bruno said. "We didn't make any arrangements -- 'if you do this, I'll do that.' ''

Still, Bruno certainly has his pet causes this session: school property tax relief, a host of business tax cuts and several projects for the Capital Region. One of those projects -- a waterfront revitalization plan that's being packaged by the Center for Economic Growth and Capital District Transportation Authority for the cities of Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Rensselaer, the Port of Albany and the town of Waterford -- is slated to be unveiled in a week or two by local business officials.

Bruno said Monday that he expects good things for the Capital Region out of the budget process, but said they weren't linked in any way to the rent settlement.

Under the six-year rent agreement, landlords will be allowed a 20 percent boost on a new lease when a controlled or stabilized apartment has been vacated, with greater increases if those apartments have been held by the same tenant for eight years or more. An additional $100-a-month rent increase could be added for stabilized apartments that rent for $300 or less a month.

Controls will be lifted on apartments whose tenants earn $175,000 a year and pay at least $2,000 a month in rent. The income threshold had previously been pegged at $250,000.

The agreement also includes tough new penalties for landlords who harass tenants, allows succession rights for one generation and says that newly built apartments will not be subject to rent regulation.

"This is a clear victory for tenant protections,'' Easton said.

Outside the Capitol on Monday afternoon, a buoyant Pataki granted live interviews with downstate television stations. Tenant activists held a celebratory rally, complete with pink and white balloons, chanting "tenant power, our finest hour!''

"I think there was a tremendous miscalculation by advocates of decontrol,'' Easton said. "They vastly underestimated the preparedness and strength of the tenant movement.''