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Woodside tenants fight to bolster rent laws

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By normal city standards, Regina Shanley's rent is a steal.

But the $530 or so she pays every month for her one-bedroom apartment in Woodside also represents more than five-sixths of her income, and even the slightest rent hike can have a dire impact on her quality of life.

"For me, any increase is disastrous," said Shanley, who has lived on disability since illness forced her to stop working five years ago. "Five dollars is a disaster for me."

Shanley, 56, is among hundreds of thousands of Queens tenants who live in apartments that fall under the state's rent regulation laws, which limit the rate at which landlords can hike their rents and prevent them from skyrocketing to market rates.

But the laws are coming up for renewal in the state Legislature this June, and tenants like Shanley are fighting to tighten the rules so apartments that are now regulated stay regulated for the long term.

"In Ridgewood and in Glendale, there are an awful lot of seniors. Being on a fixed income, being on Social Security, they're in real trouble," said Tom Gregory, 50, a Ridgewood resident who lives alone in a rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment on Fresh Pond Road. "If the system goes down the drain, for me it's a hardship, for them it's an absolute disaster."

Property owners tell their own tales of hardship, however. With fuel prices climbing and property tax bills soaring through the roof after an 18.5 percent hike, landlords want to see more apartments deregulated so their rents are dictated by market forces, not the city's Rent Guidelines Board.

"It shouldn't be up to the owner to absorb that full increase in cost," said Frank Ricci, the director of government affairs with the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade organization representing city landlords. "It's not the owner who's pocketing that money."

For now, at least, maintaining the status quo appears to have the most momentum of all. Although the state Assembly has passed legislation to strengthen rent regulation laws favored by Tenants and Neighbors, a city-based housing advocacy organization, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Saratoga Springs) has committed only to keeping rent protections at their current level.

Tenants and Neighbors is focusing much of its effort on Ridgewood, partly because the neighborhood has the highest concentration of rent-regulated buildings in Queens - 1,675 in all. But organizers also want to secure the support of the area's state senator, Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), who would be a key ally in a Republican-controlled state Senate that historically does not favor pro-tenant legislation.

Maltese met with a group of constituents organized by Tenants and Neighbors at his Howard Beach office last Thursday, where he agreed to attend a tenant meeting in Ridgewood and said he would consider co-sponsoring pro-tenant legislation with state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), who has already backed the measure.

"The senator is really working hard to protect the rent-paying constituents in his district no matter what happens," said Maltese's chief of staff, Vicki Vattimo.

But she said the senator had yet to decide Tuesday whether to go along with the proposal supported by Tenants and Neighbors.

About 201,000 units of housing in Queens are regulated, the majority of which fall under the rent stabilization laws enacted in 1974. The laws cover all buildings of six or more units that were built before that year as well as some later buildings that opted into rent stabilization in exchange for tax breaks.

But under high-rent vacancy decontrol, an amendment to the law approved in its last renewal, landlords can pull apartments from the stabilization program once the rent hits $2,000 and they are vacated.

Chris Vaeth, an organizer with Tenants and Neighbors, said "100,000 apartments have become deregulated in the last six years under the laws as they are now," referring to the citywide trend. "Our concern is that they won't strengthen the laws to where they need to be, so we won't lose another 100,000 apartments over the next six years."

Meanwhile, the landlord can raise the rent by 20 percent every time a tenant moves out, and major capital improvements to the building are billed to tenants via a rent surcharge.

"Once [the improvements] are paid off, that additional rent should be removed," said Dorothy Cavallo, a co-president of the tenants association at Phipps Gardens, an expansive apartment complex in Woodside that falls under rent stabilization laws. "Right now we are paying for I don't know how many roofs."

Advocates want to repeal high-rent vacancy decontrol, limit major capital improvement charges and reduce the 20 percent vacancy bonus to 10 percent, steps they say would help preserve affordable housing for low- and middle-income city residents.

But Paul Kerzner, counsel and former president of the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association, believes the affordable housing debate is hinging on the wrong question. Instead of focusing on how much or how little to regulate the market, Kerzner wants the government to encourage people to own their own housing units.

"We should be pushing for ownership - co-ops, condos. We want people who live there to have an equity interest in the building," Kerzner said. "Let's build affordable housing with an ownership component so people own."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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