In the summer of 1997, my then-girlfriend moved into a studio apartment in Williamsburg, a few blocks from the Lorimer Street stop on the L line. The rent was $600 a month.
She was one of the last New Yorkers to rent an apartment before the deceptively-named Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 went into effect. For both good and bad, that law is the biggest legacy former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — expelled from the Legislature after being convicted on federal corruption charges November 30 — left to people trying to live in the city and its inner suburbs.
Silver, who had represented the southern Lower East Side since 1976 and became speaker in 1994, did prevent the legislation from being worse. The state Senate’s majority leader, Joseph Bruno, advocated completely abolishing rent controls, and the governor, George Pataki, backed deregulating all vacant apartments. But the compromises Silver accepted to prevent the laws from expiring — deregulating vacant apartments that rented for $2,000 or more, an automatic 20 percent rent increase on vacant apartments that also made it much easier for landlords to get away with illegal increases — blew a hole in the levee protecting tenants from rent-gouging and arbitrary evictions.
That irrevocably changed the city’s housing market. It paved the way for rents of $1,500 in Brownsville and $5,500 in the East Village, the economic-ethnic cleansing of black and Latino neighborhoods and a city with 60,000 homeless, where most people under 30 will never have the security of living in an apartment where rent increases are limited and they can’t be evicted without a legal cause.
Silver was a flawed bulwark for tenants during his tenure as Speaker. The Assembly repeatedly passed “one-house bills” to repeal vacancy decontrol, close loopholes used for rent increases and curb landlord fraud, but was consistently thwarted by the Senate’s Republican majority — or, in 2009 and 2013, when Senate Democrats backed by the real-estate lobby switched party allegiance. In 2003, Silver got rolled by the Senate, which renewed a slightly weakened version of the rent-regulation laws late at night and then adjourned. In 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo would not support more than token improvements.
Would Silver have been a more adamant advocate if he hadn’t been so corrupt? The lobbyist who set him up with luxury-housing developer Glenwood Management, part of the network that got him $700,000 in kickbacks, testified that Glenwood was “satisfied” with the 2011 rent laws, which also renewed the 421-a tax break for housing construction. Silver stealthily pushed through the 2013 bill that gave 421-a exemptions to five luxury buildings in Manhattan that shouldn’t have been eligible—including the $100 million penthouse on 57th Street.
Sheldon Silver was far from unique. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is currently on trial on federal corruption charges. The list of recently convicted state senators includes second-ranking Republican Thomas Libous, former Housing Committee chair Vincent Leibell and turncoat Democrats Pedro Espada, Hiram Monserrate and Malcolm Smith. Bronx Democrat Nelson Castro evaded jail time by wearing a wire for most of his four years in the Assembly, and ensnared his colleague Eric Stevenson.
Much of New York State’s corruption is completely legal. A loophole in campaign-finance law lets limited-liability corporations donate $150,000 a year, the maximum individuals are allowed. As landlords commonly set up separate LLCs for buildings they own, this enables the real-estate industry to give politicians far more than any other special interest — with Glenwood’s billionaire owner, Leonard Litwin, the most prolific.
Money from Glenwood was the common thread between the trials of Silver and Skelos, two of the three most powerful figures in state politics before their indictments. The third has received more than $1 million from the company since he was elected in 2010, but so far remains unscathed: Governor Andrew Cuomo.