Bruno Blasts Off Against Tenants

New York City tenants last month witnessed the first bloody battle in the war over the fate of rent control and rent stabilization.

“I am here to tell you that on June 16, 1997 rent laws will cease to exist,” State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno announced to the Rent Stabilization Association’s annual legislative breakfast early on the morning of Thursday, Dec. 5. The Republican millionaire, speaking to the landlords’ largest lobbying organization and to many city and state legislators, vowed to end rent regulations with or without help from the governor and other legislators.

“I don’t need any votes,” he said, stating that he intended to let the rent laws die when they are slated to expire on June 15, 1997-unless Governor Pataki and the Democrats agree to his proposal to phase them out within two years.

The 300 or so landlords assembled at the Sheraton New York hotel repeatedly broke into thunderous applause as Bruno announced his decontrol intentions. Near the end of his speech, he appealed to them to safeguard the elderly and disabled as they implemented deregulation. They responded to that sentiment with noticeably restrained applause.

Tenant groups, including Met Council, staged a vocal and well-disciplined demonstration outside the hotel. A picture of the chanting tenants appeared in all the major dailies.

Bruno spent the rest of the day in New York City outlining his plan to the press, including interviews with the editorial boards of the city’s daily newspapers. His proposal was to renew the laws, but phase them out by the following measures: Allow all apartments that become vacant after June 15 to be removed from regulation; immediately decontrol units renting for over a certain rent and to tenants earning over a certain income; then decontrol all other units over a two-year period. He gave vague assurances that seniors and the disabled would be protected.

The next day, Friday, Dec. 6, tenants in the city woke up to screaming full-page headlines in the tabloid newspapers: RENT WARS, TAKE A HIKE. Within days, each of the city’s daily newspapers carried editorials urging the state Legislature to follow Bruno’s plans.

However, Bruno’s statements to the RSA stirred up such outrage that by the end of the day elected officials were falling over each other to proclaim their support for tenants. Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, three city Republican State Senators, and four Democratic candidates for mayor had all been forced to speak out about their opposition to his proposal.

Giuliani defended the city’s rent laws, stating that “I don’t believe that we will see the end of rent stabilization and rent control, certainly not in a precipitous way, and not in a way that suggests people might be put in a situation where they might not be able to afford to live in their apartments.

“I think we have struck a reasonable balance in New York City with our rent regulations, our rent increases,” he added. “I think the city should be left to make this decision for itself.”

The Mayor’s disavowal of Bruno’s decontrol plan does not follow his past practice regarding deregulation. He has removed a number of tenant protections since taking office in 1994. He supported the move in Congress last year to repeal the Brooke Amendment, which protects public housing tenants from having to pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, and has endorsed a proposed state law that would force rent-striking tenants to deposit their rent in Housing Court.

Giuliani also stacked the city Rent Guidelines Board with anti-tenant members and dictated its rent-increase guidelines in both 1995 and 1996. He also downgraded code enforcement, and, in an act directly contradicting his current position, he signed the damaging 1994 City Council high-rent vacancy deregulation measure into law.

Republican Senators Guy Velella (Westchester and the Bronx), Frank Padavan (Queens) and Roy Goodman (Upper East Side) all promised to break with Bruno to protect tenants. Three Democratic mayoral hopefuls-Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and Brooklyn Councilmember Sal Albanese-all made statements expressing opposition to Bruno. While Messinger and Ferrer both issued vaguely worded statements criticizing the Mayor and Senator Bruno through spokespersons, Albanese accused Giuliani of pandering to tenants after his RGB appointees backed rent increases. A fourth candidate, the Rev. Al Sharpton, promised support to tenants at a forum organized by the Harlem Organizing Coordinating Committee.

Several days after Bruno’s visit, Governor Pataki came out from behind a written statement to say that he wouldn’t let Bruno destroy the system in one day, but would advocate a more moderate pace for decontrol. Pataki pledged to protect low-income seniors, the disabled, and those on fixed incomes, but, like Bruno, didn’t give any details.

While Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Assembly Housing Committee, was vociferous in his attack on Bruno, vowing to hold up every pet project of upstate Republicans, including the “sewers in Oswego,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was pretty quiet. He told reporters that he would fight hard for tenants, but didn’t give any specifics.

Left out of most of the media coverage was the fact that the City Council must renew the laws by March 31. While the state laws authorizing the city to enact rent controls expire on June 15-giving upstate Republicans the final word-the city’s actual rent stabilization and rent control laws must be renewed by the Council as well. The Council vote is tentatively scheduled for February 27.

While tenants in the city are dependent on Sheldon Silver to fight for them in Albany, they have much more direct influence over what happens in the Democratic-controlled City Council. In 1994, when the laws were last renewed, the Council, under Speaker Peter Vallone’s leadership, caved into landlord pressure and passed vacancy-decontrol measures for high-rent apartments.

Several Councilmembers were in the audience for Bruno’s RSA speech: Housing Committee Chair Archie Spigner (D-Queens), Tom Ognibene (R-Queens), and Manhattan Democrats Antonio Pagan and C. Virginia Fields. The head of the RSA, Joe Strasburg, was once Speaker Vallone’s chief aide.

The Village Voice pointed out that landlord contributions to state Republicans have been very high, at $700,000 in the last year. But gifts to Democrats in both the City Council and the Legislature have also been significant. Vallone has received $34,000 and his political action committee has received over $32,000. Pagan has received $16,000, and Sheldon Silver’s assembly campaign committee has received $25,000.

Most tenants in New York City were oblivious to the impending war over the rent laws before Joe Bruno’s visit in December. Now they know what the threat is and are getting active.