Thousands Rally To Save Rent Laws

Protesting what Met Council’s Scott Sommer called “an attack from all levels of government on the laws that keep roofs over our heads,” thousands of tenants converged on City Hall Feb. 26.

The rally drew a multiracial, teenage-to-elderly crowd, from the hip-hop poets of “Universes from Da Bronx Side” to retired city workers from District Council 37. Organizers estimated it at 3,500 to 4,000 people.

“We don’t want any sort of increase that’s going to jeopardize people’s living situations,” said Rodney DuBois, a security guard from the Upper West Side. “La renta is too much money,” said Olivia Burnett of Clinton. “Rent control and rent stabilization,” said Henry Scott of Harlem. “There’s no good reason not to come,” said John Magisano of Stuyvesant Town. “I can’t afford to pay any more rent.”

Boos for Bruno, Rudy

The crowd booed the mention of Joseph Bruno and Rudolph Giuliani like Jews at Purim trying to drown out Haman’s name, as speaker after speaker blasted real-estate-bought politicians’ plans to destroy rent controls and tenant protections. “There is a plan to empty New York City of poor and low-income people,” said Bob Grossman of SRO Tenants United. “There is a plan to make New York City a playground for the rich and a Disneyland for foreign tourists.”

Penny LaForest of the Queens League of United Tenants noted that 71 percent of the city’s residents rent their homes. “How dare anybody upstate f##k with us,” she declared. “And how dare the City Council ignore us.” Council Speaker Peter Vallone, she said, could eliminate the 1994 vacancy-decontrol loophole by changing “one sentence in a bill”,but instead has chosen to keep its repeal bottled up in committee.

Messinger, 1199 endorse

Estella Vasquez of Local 1199 announced that the hospital workers’ union was backing the campaign to save the rent laws. And the Rev. Bob Castle of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem drew laughter with gibes at “Rootie-Tootie Giuliani,” “Ticky-Tacky Pataki,” and President Clinton renting out the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom before leading the crowd in a chant of “No More Rent.”

Democratic mayoral hopeful Ruth Messinger worked the crowd, shaking demonstrators’ hands in the front row. She said she came out to show “support of tenants and support of rent regulations, and opposition to what the state Legislature is trying to do and the Mayor’s very, very passive position on the issue.”

Albanese attends

Brooklyn City Councilmember Sal Albanese, another candidate for the Democratic mayoral nomination, also attended. Other elected officials who showed up included Councilmembers Stanley Michels and C. Virginia Fields, sponsors of the bill to repeal the 1994 high-rent decontrol law; city Comptroller Alan Hevesi; State Senator David Paterson; and Councilmembers Guillermo Linares, Gifford Miller, and Howard Lasher.

Police, some wearing riot helmets, maintained a heavy presence, blocking the paths to City Hall with metal barricades. A helicopter hovered overhead.

One demonstrator, a 54-year-old rent-controlled tenant from Murray Hill, said her landlord hasn’t waited for June 15 to try to harass her out. The building she’s lived in for 30 years has gone co-op,and last Christmas her landlord gave her a card with a picture of Santa Claus and a dead cat.

The crowd also included public-housing residents, loft and Mitchell-Lama tenants, and squatters. One man carried a sign reading “Lazio, Te Gustaria Pasar Una Noche Fria En Una Caja De Cart_n”,asking Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio, the main man behind Congressional attempts to repeal public-housing tenant protections, if he’d like to spend a cold night in a cardboard box.

Others passed out fliers urging a city-wide rent strike on June 1, two weeks before the rent laws expire. One leaflet said it would make landlords “feel the dent in rent payments” and “stop the flow of money, which is their life blood.”

“We want to show these people we mean business. They want to destroy our neighborhoods,” said Carlos Gonzalez of the Lower East Side Coalition to Save Public Housing and Section 8, bearing a placard with a drawing of a Republican elephant trampling a city skyline resembling Avenue D. “We’re doing this peaceably now, but if push comes to shove, we’ll give them a message on the streets they’ll never forget.”