2003: A Rent Odyssey

by J. A. Lobbia
Village Voice, June 18, 1997
Plan Puts Rent Laws into the Next Century

ALBANY-- The deal meant to settle the rent battle this week has given a fresh twist to that overused political term, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard). Now it could mean: Not In My Ballot Year.

In agreeing to an unprecedented, six-year extension of the rent laws, Governor George Pataki clearly calculated the electoral damage that a rent-law expiration could do to him and ensured that he will not face the thorny issue until well into his second term--should he have one.

'They all want this as far off their election cycle as possible," said Martin Brennan, campaign coordinator for New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, one of the main groups that has been battling to save the rent laws since Senate Majority Leader Republican Joe Bruno vowed last December to scrap them.

The plan, brokered in postmidnight negotiations on Monday between Bruno, Pataki, and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, would be a clear, though not unmitigated, victory for tenants. It would include no vacancy decontrol, instead allowing landlords limited increases for apartments that become vacant while keeping the units within the rent-regulation system. (Now, apartments that rent for $2000 and over are deregulated.) Succession rights, though altered, would remain. And a new crop of antiharassment measures would be included.

At presstime Monday, the law to protect 2.7 million tenants statewide had expired and the new plan was being drafted as a bill, but neither the senate nor the assembly had voted on it. In the early evening, bill drafters were still bickering over details. According to one Albany insider, 'The senate is trying to change little things so they can scurry back to the landlords with little pieces of cheese to say, ėLook what I got you."'

Legislators had returned to the capitol on Sunday evening to be on hand in case the rent stalemate broke. The long night was filled with waiting, rumors, and ridiculous proposals. Among them was a Bruno plan for a 24-hour moratorium on evictions should the laws expire. Around midnight, tenants sent Pataki a letter asking him to issue a 'message of necessity" that would make any last-minute legislation viable. Shortly thereafter, the assembly passed three bills, including a 30-day extension, and then took a break as word of a 'conceptual agreement" among the negotiators spread through the assembly chambers. The senate itself was off-limits to the public all night.

By 8:30 Monday morning, even one of the city's most astute deal-makers seemed to be in the dark. Over breakfast with several other landlord lobbyists at an Albany hotel, Joe Strasburg, president of the city's biggest landlord group, the Rent Stabilization Association, was overheard asking what had happened regarding key details of the plan. Strasburg, an ultimate insider who is a former top aide to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and whose political acumen is respected even by his foes, ran through a laundry list of questions about succession rights and vacancy increases.

Indeed, after pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign to end rent laws, spending months lobbying top legislators, and winning the editorial endorsement of each of the city's dailies, the landlords appeared stunned.

Does the Albany deal prove that ordinary citizens can win out over big business? That reason can overcome greed? That the state legislature can't be bought?

Perhaps. But it also demonstrates a precise political calculus: 'There was a bad human consequence to having the laws expire or to passing a bad law," said Richard Brodsky, an assembly Democrat from Westchester whose district includes between 3000 and 5000 regulated apartments. 'Given that the moral equations canceled each other out, the political equation was very powerful: the governor and the senate saw irreparable damage done by expiration, but the assembly was rock-solid on both its social and political strategy." As for Bruno and the landlord lobby, Brodsky said, 'they kept strategically and tactically tripping over their ties. Joe Bruno went out too early and too stridently, and George Pataki grossly underestimated this issue."

In the end, Brodsky said, the governor could no longer cloak the issue in high-minded economic principle. 'For Pataki, when it came down to it, there was no shred of a notion of the free market or anything like that. They were negotiating for money for landlords, even if it ended up being just a few dollars. It came down to what it was: the greed of a special interest."

And while tenants can rightly claim victory, it is not complete. Under the proposal, succession rights would be pared, excluding nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. After one generation has used those rights, a landlord could charge vacancy bonuses. Landlords would also have the right to relocate tenants to accommodate demolition so long as there are three or fewer tenants who constitute 10 per cent or less of a building's occupants.

Perhaps most troubling is the plan's proposal to require that tenants who are sued by their landlord for nonpayment deposit the amount claimed in an escrow account by the time of a second court adjournment. 'This plan is not a panacea," says Assemblyman Scott Stringer, a Manhattan Democrat who recently issued a study critical of housing court and the state's housing agency. 'The fact is that Shelly Silver stared down George Pataki and Joe Bruno and won. But there's a lot of peril in this. The mandatory rent deposit without a funding mechanism to provide the right to counsel, without real reform of housing court, can be very dangerous for many, many tenants. When you look at the whole thing, yeah, we won. But we have things to be concerned about, too."

Tenant activists had warned months ago that a mandatory rent deposit would be traded off in the rent battle. But while landlords want the deposit required, both Strasburg and Dan Margulies, who runs an association of landlords who own smaller properites, have told the Voice that they expect it will take more than legislation to accomplish this. Both landlord leaders say they doubt housing-court judges will enforce the law, and that it would face years of legal challenges.

The plan also leaves unresolved a fundamental problem: how to create more housing, especially affordable housing. The rent laws presume a severe housing shortage--they kick in when the vacancy rate is 5 per cent or less. Monday's plan fails to address this underlying crisis--a fact noted as a 'downside" even in the Assembly Democratic Conference's press release. There is 'no real commitment on improving the supply of affordable housing," the release says. 'This still needs to be addressed...because this is the real answer to the rent-regulation problem."

In April, the assembly passed Silver's bill to build 25,000 new units of affordable housing. Silver aide Pat Lynch said that will now become an item for consideration in resolving the state budget, already 77 days overdue.

'This victory is only about one part of the housing problem, and no one is talking now about how we build more housing," says Bernice Siegel of the Queens League of United Tenants. 'The question is, where do we go from here?"

Research: Rachel Malamud