By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There's a triennial issue in New York lawmaking that creates a certain buzz around City Hall's east wing, where the city council has headquarters. That buzz is created by landlords and their lobbyists coming to cajole councilmembers into chipping away at rent laws, which they argue limit their profits, but which others insist guard millions of tenants from landlord greed. By law, the council must vote to renew the laws every three years, and while it has never scrapped the laws, it has used the renewal requirement to weaken them. With an April 1 renewal deadline approaching, hearings on the laws are set for later this month.
What's remarkable about this year's renewal round is not the clamor of real estate folks trying to win givebacks from tenants, but the quiet surrounding the issue. In fact, so far, sources say, no landlord glad-handers have come to call. "Here it is February, and I haven't been lobbied by any side," says Queens Republican councilmember Tom Ognibene, who has often introduced bills to weaken rent rules. "Usually by now, there absolutely would be people here, lobbying heavily, coming to the office, making presentations. But I haven't heard from anyone, and that's unusual."
Sources theorize that the lull is because the landlord lobbylong an ally of Council Speaker Peter Vallonedoesn't want to put him in a bind. Vallone plans to run for mayor in 2001, and has found that pitching himself as a tenant-friendly candidate is a tough sell, given his history of diluting rent protections and his political reliance on real estate contributions. "Clearly the industry doesn't want to put Peter in an untenable position," says one council insider. "I don't think they're going to press him to make any changes, even if they're innocuous."
Indeed, this time, Vallone took an early and decisive stand. In December, he committed to renew the rent laws. And he submitted a bill that would close what tenants say is a loophole that allows landlords to deregulate apartments by boosting rents to $2000 when a regulated tenant moves out. The bill would require landlords to inform new tenants how much rent the prior tenant paid and that they can challenge the deregulation, called vacancy decontrol. Vallone's move is ironic since it was he who instituted vacancy decontrol in 1994. As tenant advocate Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition says, "Let's not forget who created the vacancy decontrol mechanism in the first place."
In fact, Vallone's December bill stems from a political calculation, sources say. Throughout the fall, tenants pressured and picketed Vallone, worried that he would once again erode their rights. To assuage that concern, the speaker worked to lure protenant Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels to sign onto his rent-law extension. Michels agreed to do so only if Vallone would do more for tenants. The bill requiring landlords to inform new tenants of previous rents was the result.
"By no means did Vallone have any intention of doing anything more than a straight extension," says a council source. "Michels was not willing to take that. Vacancy decontrol has created an enormous loophole, and this bill lets landlords know they can't just set rents whimsically."
But Vallone refused to add two other protenant provisions Michels was pushingone allowing the Rent Guidelines Board to set annual rates for rent-controlled as well as rent-stabilized units, and one eliminating a monthly surcharge on low-rent apartments. Those measures have now been taken up by Brooklyn councilmember and public advocate candidate Stephen DiBrienza. But McKee says Vallone and his staff have stopped them from being formally introduced.
"Vallone is determined not to have these other bills come out in time for the hearing" on the rent laws, scheduled for February 25, "because they will make Vallone's bill look like the piddling thing that it is," says McKee. "Vallone wants to look like a tenant hero when he is a tenant zero."
Vallone has also held hostage a Michels resolution asking for the repeal of the Urstadt provision, which forbids the city from passing any bill that is more stringent on landlords than state laws. Michels introduced the measure last year, but it is languishing without assignment to any committee, a process Vallone controls. The speaker's spokesperson did not comment on why Michels's and DiBrienza's proposals are stalled.
DiBrienza is taking a long view of the process. "These things are not time-sensitive, but renewing the rent laws is," says DiBrienza. "I'll keep working and hope that by next week we have a plan ready. I know the tenants get nervous that these ideas will never see the light of day, but right now we need to stay focused on extending the laws."
The February 25 hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. in council chambers; further hearings and a committee vote are anticipated for March 6.