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Council committee votes to renew rent regulations

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The City Council's housing and buildings committee approved a bill to renew the city's existing rent regulations this week, with the lone dissenting vote cast by conservative Republican Councilman Tom Ognibene of Middle Village.

The 8-1 vote moves the renewal bill, which would preserve existing laws governing maximum rent increases and eviction protections, to the full City Council for a vote on March 20. While the outcome of the vote was expected, the session gave tenants, landlords and council members a chance to stake their positions on the larger city housing issues.

Nearly everyone at the hearing called for more affordable housing in the city. The U.S. Census Bureau found a vacancy rate of 3.19 percent in the city for 1999, with the tightest market in Queens at 2.11 percent. Citywide low-rent units had much lower vacancy rates, 1.26 percent, than those at the highest end of the spectrum, where vacancy rates hit 5.7 percent in 1999.

One speaker's comments on the subject were a bit unexpected.

"There really has been one thing sorely lacking - a commitment by government to do something about affordable housing," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association.

The RSA is the largest landlords' association in the city, representing the owners and managers of more than 1 million rental units. The group is also a close ally of City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) and shares an address with Vallone's mayoral campaign headquarters.

Strasburg said he opposed rent regulation and called on the Council to devote more money to subsidies for new apartment construction.

"Create new opportunities for those in the affordable housing world to go in and entice them," Strasburg said. "It's going to cost money. It's going to cost a lot of money. We have to build ourselves out of this emergency."

Housing Committee Chairman and Deputy Council Speaker Archie Spigner (D-Jamaica) agreed that developers could use more tax credits and other subsidies to build more housing.

"You do need outright grants," Spigner said.

Ognibene went even further than Strasburg in his criticism of rent regulation, arguing that relatively low rents on regulated apartments discourage landlords from purchasing and maintaining rent-stabilized buildings.

"It's kind of a self-perpetuating system," Ognibene said. "It's because we do that that owners can't operate the buildings....[Rent regulations] are the cause of the housing shortage in New York. I vote no."

But Manhattan City Councilman Stanley Michels (D-Hamilton Heights) objected to Strasburg's recommendation that the city subsidize new unregulated apartments.

"If you take taxpayers' money, then you should be subject to regulation," Michels said.

The bill includes one amendment to strengthen tenants' protections. In 1994, the Council deregulated apartments once their rents reached a ceiling of $2,000. Housing advocates say landlords have been inflating rents to push them over the $2,000 ceiling, so landlords would be required to document how a newly deregulated apartment reached $2,000.

Strasburg and a representative from the Small Property Owners of New York objected to the provision as burdensome, but Michels said, "all we're trying to do is tell them [tenants] what their rights are."

A few tenants also testified before the vote on Monday.

Choy Jin Kook, an 88-year-old Flushing resident, said he supported rent regulations because of the Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption, which keeps rents for seniors at no more than 33 percent of their income.

"If the rent regulations expire, the many senior citizens like me will be evicted from their homes," he said through an interpreter.

Yvonne Lee of Harlem spoke against the $15 surcharge levied against tenants who pay less than $500 a month. The City Council is considering a separate bill to repeal the tax.

"I feel as though I'm being punished because I pay less than $500 a month in rent," she said.

Robert Katz, counsel to the Queens League of United Tenants, urged the Council to work for the end of the Urstadt Law, which gives the state Legislature jurisdiction over rent regulation in the city. Michels is calling for a resolution that would overturn the law.

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