In the last two decades, no New York politician did more to raise rents than Joseph Bruno, who stepped down as state Senate majority leader June 23 — although Mayor Michael Bloomberg is working on being equally destructive.
Bruno, who had ruled the Legislature’s Republican- dominated upper house since 1995, was the key figure in gutting the state’s rent-stabilization laws in 1997 and weakening them further in 2003. The changes gave landlords an automatic 20 percent increase for vacant apartments, made it easier for tenants to be evicted and restricted enforcement against illegally high rents.
Bruno also repeatedly refused to allow the Senate to consider pro-tenant measures passed by the Assembly, such as a nine-bill package it approved in May. That package included bills to repeal vacancy decontrol for apartments renting for $2,000 a month or more, to increase the penalties for harassing tenants, and to repeal the 1971 “Urstadt law,” which bars local governments from passing rent regulations stronger than the state’s.
If you wonder about the results, consider this: In 1997, a mere 11 years ago, you could easily find an apartment in Williamsburg for $600 a month, and a nonprofit group renovating buildings in Crown Heights complained that it had to charge as much as $500 for some apartments.
No aspect of New York politics is more massively corrupt and undemocratic. Because of the Urstadt law, Bruno had veto power over the state’s rent laws — even though he represented a district northeast of Albany that contained no rent-regulated apartments and was more than 100 miles north of the nearest New York City voter. On the other hand, Bruno received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from New York City landlords, which he employed to preserve the Senate’s shrinking GOP majority.
With that majority now down to 32-30, Democrats hope that this will be the year they take control of the Senate — which, thanks to some artful gerrymandering, has been in GOP hands for all but one year since 1958. The Democrats are eyeing the seats of Serphin Maltese and Frank Padavan in Queens, who represent districts that were once dominated by Reagan Democrats, but are now increasingly immigrant and less sympathetic to the politics of white resentment. They also expect to pick off seats upstate and on Long Island, where the gross unpopularity of President Bush has hurt Republicans.
If the Democrats win the Senate, tenant activists want them to repeal the Urstadt law and high-rent vacancy decontrol within the first 100 hours of the 2009 session. A Democratic majority would greatly increase the chances of that happening, but would not guarantee it. In May, when Senate Democrats sent a letter to Bruno urging him to repeal vacancy decontrol, Minority Leader Malcolm Smith of Queens was among the three who did not sign it.
Perhaps Smith had his eye on the rivers of money with which New York real-estate interests water its politicians. Those now flow heavily toward Republican senators, but they also fund Democrats such as New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
“I think that Malcolm [Smith] is attempting to be the voice of reason,” Joseph Strasburg, head of the Rent Stabilization Association, the city’s main landlord lobby, told the New York Observer in late June. “Because clearly you would recognize that if that’s the direction the majority is going to go, then the people who provide resources in the real-estate industry clearly will not assist the Democrats in their endeavor to take over the Senate.”