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The leading lobbyist for dismantling rent regulation in New York has hatched a scheme to pry legislators representing poor outer-borough neighborhoods away from their Manhattan colleagues and into the landlord camp–just months before rent laws are up for renewal in Albany.

In a stunningly candid session with tenant advocates last Tuesday, Joe Strasburg, head of the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), revealed his political strategy to kill the 52-year-old program that keeps rents affordable for two million tenants in New York City.

“There are many politicians of color [in the outer boroughs] who I have spoken to privately who see no benefit to the continuation of rent regulation,” said Strasburg, a longtime Democratic operative who was once City Council Speaker Peter Vallone's top aide.

Strasburg and other panelists appeared at the Community Resource and Training Center's rent regulation roundtable at the New School. The RSA will target minority representatives in their lobbying efforts–and with cash contributions to legislators' re- election campaigns. In 1996, Strasburg's group has lavished $700,000 on candidates statewide.

The RSA has a long history of cash contributions to Democrats in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods, including: Olga Mendez, a veteran state senator who represents East Harlem and the South Bronx; Adriano Espaillat, the newly elected assemblyman in Washington Heights; Brooklyn Councilman Martin Malave-Dilan; Bronx Assemblywoman Gloria Davis and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. In 1993, Strasburg's group forked over $6,500 to powerful Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, an assemblyman who made an unsuccessful bid for the Public Advocate's post.

“The driving force [for regulation] has always been coming out of Manhattan, so [we will] look at politicians in parts of the city other than Manhattan,” Strasburg told City Limits.

“I think their strategy will fail,” countered Billy Easton, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, a leading tenant advocacy group. “Tenants in every borough save a lot of money in rent as a result of regulation. That goes neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough.”

In a direct challenge to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who supports regulation, Strasburg said he would succeed in pulling some city Democrats from the Silver- controlled Democratic assembly conference. “I've seen times when [Silver's] own delegation voted against his leadership,” said Strasburg. “[W]e'll win.”

The 1994 laws renewing rent stabilization and rent control are due to expire on June 15, 1997. Landlords, with the help of upstate Republicans, are pushing for the decontrol of apartments as they become vacant, further deregulation of “luxury” apartments with rents above $1,000 a month, and the imposition of mandatory rent deposits on poor tenants who request continuances in non-payment of rent cases.