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Rent law hearings draw boro politicos, tenants

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Queens politicians took center stage at last week's City Council hearings on renewal of rent regulation, an issue traditionally dominated by Manhattan.

Deputy City Council Speaker Archie Spigner (D-Jamaica), chairman of the Housing Committee, opened the hearings last Friday morning with a defense of Intro 669, the renewal bill proposed by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria). The bill would preserve the existing laws, including maximum rent increases and eviction protections, on the city's 2 million regulated apartments.

"People who have called my office and other council members' offices as well as council staff have clearly been unduly alarmed at the prospect of losing the rent protection they have come to rely on," Spigner said. "Contrary to anything you may have heard, the bill and resolution before us today will continue all the protections currently in the law for tenants."

Queens had the lowest vacancy rates in the city in 1999, 2.11 percent, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The city's rent laws govern not only maximum rent increases on certain apartments but also provide tenants with protection from unreasonable evictions and set standards for living conditions and repairs in more than 200,000 apartments in Queens.

But although Vallone has insisted that he advocates preserving the existing laws, critics have raised an alarm that the Council might add amendments to the bill to weaken it. In 1994, a last-minute amendment to the bill deregulated apartments once their rents reached a ceiling of $2,000.

Since then, housing advocates say landlords have been inflating increases on regulated apartments to push them over the $2,000 ceiling, allowing the owners to charge any rent the market will bear. Vallone proposed a resolution that would require landlords to inform tenants in a newly deregulated apartment how the apartment reached the $2,000 ceiling.

With a mayoral campaign in the works for next year, Vallone is trying to boost his standing with tenants by emphasizing his work on providing affordable housing. He recently issued a statement supporting a trust fund to build middle-income housing and the establishment of tax credits for building low-income housing.

Other Queens elected officials at the hearing took up the cause of the borough's senior citizens, who stand to lose certain protections if the rent laws are not renewed. More than 33,000 senior citizens benefit from the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Program, which guarantees they will not pay more than 33 percent of their income in rent.

"Without rent stabilization, senior citizens will be left out in the cold," said U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights).

Crowley is running for re-election this year and faces a primary challenge from City Councilman Walter McCaffrey (D-Woodside), whose district has one of the largest senior populations in the city.

Another possible mayoral candidate from Queens, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, appeared at the hearing to express his concern for senior citizens, calling them "a particularly vulnerable segment of the population."

Hevesi also made the link between a lack of affordable housing and the issue of illegal conversions. Queens civic groups have complained for years about single-family homes converted into illegal, crowded and often dangerous multifamily apartments.

"The vacancy survey also shows that the crowding situation in rental apartments has become more serious," Hevesi said.

The survey commissioned by HPD found that the proportion of rental households with more than one person living in a room jumped to 11 percent in 1999, compared to 10.3 percent in 1996. During the same period, complaints to the Department of Buildings about illegal conversions of apartments increased from 1,645 in 1993 to 6,825 in 1999, Hevesi said.

But not every Queens politician at the hearing was wholeheartedly in support of rent regulation. Councilman Thomas Ognibene (R-Middle Village), a member of the Housing Committee, recommended that HPD foster the building of non-regulated housing.

"There seems to be a willingness among private developers to produce non-regulated housing," he said.

Ognibene also advocated the deregulation of apartments in the Bronx and Staten Island, where vacancy rates were higher than in other parts of the city.

The City Council will hold another round of hearings on the rent regulation March 3 and will vote on renewal by March 31.

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