Vallone Torpedoes Decontrol Repeal Bill

In a sneak attack on the tenant movement’s legislative strategy, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone on February 21 rejected Manhattan Councilmembers Stanley Michels and C. Virginia Fields’ attempt to introduce a bill that would extend the city’s rent laws while repealing the vacancy-decontrol provisions enacted in 1994.

Vallone reportedly justified his refusal to let Michels and Fields introduce their bill by claiming that it was filed too late for the full meeting of the Council on February 25. Additionally, he claimed that he would not accept it for filing without Michels’ personal signature. Michels was vacationing in the Galapagos Islands.

In reply, Michels and Fields intend to introduce the decontrol repeal as a floor amendment when the full Council considers the rent laws late in March. The date for the vote is or Tuesday, March 25.

Prior to Vallone’s rejection of the Michels-Fields repeal bill, many Councilmembers expressed intention to co-sponsor or support it, including some who voted for the decontrol amendments in 1994. Brooklyn Democrat Annette M. Robinson was one of the first, publicly stating during last year’s Rent Guidelines Board hearings that she had made a mistake in 1994.

Double decontrol

In 1994, the last time the rent laws were up for renewal, Michels and Councilmember Andrew Eristoff sponsored a bill that would have extended them for three years without change. Vallone saw to it that it would fail, and promoted a landlord-backed bill that allowed owners to decontrol vacant apartments that they could charge $2,000 for, regardless of the previous rent. Also decontrolled were apartments where the tenants’ family incomes had been $250,000 a year for the two previous years. The latter was called “high-income luxury decontrol.”

Most of the small number of rich New Yorkers with $250,000 incomes (a fraction of one percent) living in regulated apartments were deregulated by their landlords in the three years since then. Additionally, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s draconian processing policies have allowed landlords to deregulate many tenants earning a fraction of that income, forcing them out of their apartments.

The $2,000 vacancy-decontrol provision was, however, far more harmful, and serves as a rent beacon for landlords to steer to. If a landlord can empty an apartment and charge (or claim to charge) $2,000 a month to the next tenant, he is doubly rewarded with a sky-high rent and by having that unit permanently exempt from hated rent regulation: no more rent limits, no more rent registration, no more tenants they can’t evict.

Council duped

When the law was passed, many Councilmembers believed that the $2,000 vacancy decontrol would only affect regulated apartments where the previous tenant was already paying at least $2,000 and moved out voluntarily. Instead, Governor Pataki’s DHCR interpreted the law as allowing landlords of any vacant regulated unit who charged $2,000 to the incoming tenant to deregulate them immediately. This has given landlords an incentive to fraudulently decontrol apartments so they can charge sky-high rents, and also gives them an opening to further destroy regulations by pushing for lower limits when the laws come up for renewal.

Backdoor decontrol

It is impossible to know exactly how many apartments have been deregulated under these loopholes, because those apartments are no longer registered with DHCR, but tenant activists estimate the figure at 10,000 to 20,000 units in the last three years. Met Council members report that many apartments are being warehoused, with their landlords renting only to tenants who will pay $2,000 or more. Reports in the New York media document soaring rents in vacant apartments in upscale neighborhoods, not all in Manhattan.

The real-estate industry has amply rewarded Vallone for ramming the decontrol amendments through the City Council in 1994 with contributions to his campaign coffers. He is reported to be interested in running for Governor.

A Queens group, Astoria Concerned Neighbors, hit pay dirt with Vallone on February 24, catching him in his district office when they picketed him that afternoon (see story on page 8).

Met Council is urging individual tenants and tenant organizations to lobby Vallone in the next two weeks as hard as they can.