By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Few New York City relationships are as laced with mistrust as the one between landlord and tenant. Add a politician to the mix, and that mistrust rises to a level just short of paranoia. Example: City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has vowed to extend the rent laws for three years and has even drafted a bill with a protenant provision. But rather than react with glee, tenant leaders expressed what could at best be called guarded optimism.
"I suspect that Vallone has told the landlord lobby not to worry, that it can get what it doesn't like repealed in Albany or in the courts," says Michael McKee of New York Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "People are not terribly impressed."
Citywide, tenant leaders are dubious about the shape Vallone's bill will ultimately take. That doubt is, as the saying goes, not for nothing, since Vallone himself has done much to undermine his credibility among tenants. This summer, he passed a landlord-crafted lead paint bill that tenant and health advocates say will sicken children, despite Vallone's 1997 gubernatorial platform promise to protect them. And he is hard-pressed to make amends for his 1994 hit on tenants: Vallone deregulated vacant apartments renting for more than $2000, and occupied apartments if tenants earned more than $250,000 and rent was above $2000. In 1997, the state legislature lowered the thresholds, limiting income to $175,000.
Renters fear that Vallone's long-standing financial reliance on the landlord lobby heightened by his 2001 mayoral bid, which in October prompted the Real Estate Board to make an unprecedented fundraising appeal on Vallone's behalfenhances the chance of a landlord-friendly "compromise" bill this spring. But political wisdom holds that while landlords have the money, tenants have the votes, and a winning politician must somehow accommodate both.
Indeed, McKee says that Vallone's bill, introduced December 16, "will make it politically difficult for him to do something different in March," when the council is expected to vote to extend the laws, which would otherwise expire on April 1. The council votes on whether to renew the laws, which are set by the state, every three years. And while renewal was never in question, tenants have spent months organizing phone banks and protests to pressure Vallone to take no further swipe at them.
Council spokeswoman Rica Rinzler said, "The bill really speaks for itself; the speaker has said he will pass the rent law." Public hearings have yet to be scheduled.
The most likely prolandlord turn would be yet another downward revision in the income or rent threshold for wealthy tenants in high-priced units. "I'd love to see the council do something so that if you make $175,000 a year and your rent is $500 a month, not $2000, you should be deregulated," says Dan Margulies, executive director of an organization of landlords who own midsize properties. "The law is completely idiotic on that point." Joe Strasburg, president of the city's largest landlord lobby and Vallone's former top aide, says people earning $250,000 a year and who have second homes should be deregulated regardless of rents. "Why protect people of such wealth?" he asks, an ironic question considering that Strasburg advocates for some of the city's richest landlords.
McKee counters that while rent laws are not intended as a boon for the elite, "the whole point is not to protect the tenant in place, but to keep that apartment affordable for the future. Once it's decontrolled, it's lost forever."
Indeed, Vallone's one bone to tenants centers on decontrol. In 1997, Albany allowed landlords to deregulate vacant apartments if they could bring the rent to more than $2000 by various means, including improvements made to the unit. Tenants have complained that the "improvements" are often bogus and renters don't know that they can appeal to a state agency. Vallone's bill would require landlords to inform the first deregulated tenants of the last regulated rent and give them an accounting of how the rent reached $2000.
"I think it's dumb," says Strasburg. "If you can show abuse, go after those owners. The argument is that education should go to tenants who need it most, but those are usually the poor. It seems to me when you're dealing with a constituency that can afford in excess of $2000 rent, they're not the easily taken advantage of in the world." Margulies adds that the market plays a role in whether new tenants challenge rents. "The challenge is now very rare because most people moving in think they're getting a reasonable deal; if they've been looking around and if they don't like it they certainly have the money to move."
Protenant measures could come to the table through Brooklyn council member and public advocate contender Stephen DiBrienza, whose says his platform for affordable housing might include bills that broaden Vallone's. Most ambitious would be a resolution asking the state to revoke the 1971 Urstadt provision, which forbids city laws that are more stringent on landlords than state laws. Urstadt is key in protecting landlords from protenant laws, and a move to eliminate it would certainly mean war. But Schaeffer says that, with the mayoralty in mind, Vallone might be amenable.
"It's possible that he can be convinced to do the right thing with the right kind of issue and organization," says Schaeffer. "He is, after all, a political animal."