Every New York political observer knows that Joe Strasburg, leader of the effort to kill New York’s rent regulation laws, has channeled a Hudson River in cash from his lower Manhattan office to upstate Republicans. Upon this river he has floated his reputation as political fixer: GOP State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a recipient of $175,000 in money from Strasburg’s landlord organization, the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), has promised to push for “an end to all rent regulation” when the state’s rent control and rent stabilization laws expire next June.
But over the last three years, Strasburg has also diverted a barely noticed underground tributary of landlord largesse to city Democrats–including such publicly pro-tenant politicians as Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and Bronx political boss Roberto Ramirez. His goal: to create cracks in the overwhelmingly pro-tenant city delegation to the state Assembly that is supposed to hold the line on rent regulation this spring.
A City Limits analysis of state and city campaign disclosure documents has found that RSA and its related political action committees plowed more than $125,000 into the war chests of city Democrats since rent regulations were last renewed in June 1994. Most of that money has gone to black and Latino politicians with whom Strasburg has enjoyed longstanding political alliances.
“I’m creating a farm system of candidates who are more flexible than many politicians in the city have been in the past,” he explains.
Strasburg, former chief of staff for City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a Queens Democrat, appears to be banking on the possibility that even if landlords fail to completely overturn rent regulations when they come up for renewal this year, some assembly Democrats from the five boroughs will be willing to compromise. This could mean wider decontrol of high-rent apartments, as well as new requirements that tenants in Housing Court cases deposit unpaid rent with the court. And the support of some city Democrats will be essential if Strasburg is ever to achieve his ultimate goal of eliminating rent regulations altogether.
Like a sapper burrowing under a castle wall, Strasburg has taken up the slow work of undermining the strong multi-ethnic, multi-class coalition of citywide tenants and politicians that has held the line on rent regulation for 22 years.
In a candid conversation with City Limits, the lobbyist laid out a strategy to pit politicians in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx against their colleagues from Manhattan, the borough with the highest rate of rent-regulated apartments and the biggest cluster of unrepentant liberal politicians.” Rent regulation is an issue of greatest concern to Manhattan,” explains Strasburg, who says his aggressiveness has earned him death threats from incensed tenants. “There are many politicians of color [outside of Manhattan] that I have spoken to who see no need for the continuation of rent regulation.”
“The amounts of money [The RSA is] contributing is not huge when you look at the money it’s giving to Republicans,” observes Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, the state’s leading tenant-lobbying organization. “But in poor neighborhoods, that amount of money is real money. It buys you influence. You get a lot of value for your money.”
“Basically, they are trying to get poor Hispanic and blacks to split off from white people in Manhattan,” adds Vito Lopez, a pro-tenant Brooklyn assemblyman who opposes any change to rent regulation laws. “I think that’s pretty cynical.”
Of course, the bulk of RSA’s money continues to go to its Republican standard-bearers. A recent report by a good government group revealed that 70 percent of the $1 million in state-level contributions by landlords, developers and realtors during the last two years went to the GOP.
In the New York City delegation, the RSA has made its biggest contributions to GOP senators like Serphin Maltese, John Marchi and Bob DiCarlo, who was recently defeated by pro-tenant Democrat Vincent Gentile. Campaign filings show that RSA-PAC and its sister, the Neighborhood Preservation PAC, have also poured at least $75,000 in “soft” money into the tiny, Bay Ridge-based Conservative Party, which in turn buoyed city GOP candidates.
But Strasburg is himself a Democrat, and he maintains close ties with his old boss, Speaker Vallone, as well as many councilmembers and Borough President Ferrer.
“I’m from the Bronx so I’m comfortable dealing with politicians there,” Strasburg tells City Limits. “Actually,” he adds, “I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in the Bronx.”
Most of RSA’s contributions to city Democrats–about $90,000, according to filings–have gone to prominent black and Latino politicians and their political organizations. Landlord-related contributors channeled $40,000 to two Upper Manhattan assembly candidates who unseated a pair of staunchly pro-tenant incumbents in November, and RSA itself dispatched big money to the Bronx: $20,000 to mayoral hopeful Ferrer, and $10,000 to the Bronx county organization and its leader, Ramirez–who also took at least $23,000 more from other real estate interests and management companies, according to state records.
Ferrer is publicly pro-rent regulation and so is Ramirez. Yet the money appears to have had some effect on an issue that may prove central to the coming battle. Last spring, the Democratic leader summoned the entire Bronx assembly delegation to his office in Albany to urge them all to sponsor a bill drafted by landlords and strongly supported by the RSA. Under the measure, tenants would have to deposit back rent in a special escrow account before their cases are heard in Housing Court. Property owners hail the bill as a way of preventing frivolous rent strikes. Tenant advocates argue it will punish any tenant who withholds rent–even if they need the money to pay for repairs that bad landlords refuse to do.
“I didn’t sign on,” says Jeffrey Klein, a Riverdale assemblyman who is otherwise a Ramirez ally. “I know that a rent strike is often the only ammunition a tenant has…. I have landlords in my district who are real horror stories.”
But despite the fact that the Bronx has some of the poorest tenants and some of the city’s worst housing stock, Ramirez didn’t find much other resistance. In June, South Bronx Assemblymember Gloria Davis introduced the bill under her name and it was immediately cosponsored by most of the Bronx delegation, including Ramirez, Carmen Arroyo, Peter Rivera, Steve Kauffman, Aurelia Greene and then-assemblyman Pedro Espada, Sr.
If the bill’s introduction had a practical benefit for landlords, it is also another political wedge weapon in RSA’s arsenal. Speaking off the record, landlords say they are hoping to get middle-class tenant groups to give ground on rent deposits in exchange for greater decontrol of some luxury apartments. In another scenario, if the tenant coalition goes to the wall on rent deposits, they might be willing to accede to more luxury decontrol to stave off the proposal. Pushing rent deposits is a win-win proposition for landlords.
“The truth is I think the only people that really oppose [rent deposits] are the Legal Aid types and representatives for the poorest tenants,” Strasburg says.
But in December, Davis withdrew her bill under pressure from Legal Aid, the City Wide Task Force on Housing Court, NYSTNC, and other tenant and community organizations.
“When tenants began to understand what it was about, they got really, really pissed off,” says Hazel Muira, housing program director for the Bronx-based Neighborhood Initiatives Housing Development Corporation.
Muira and City Wide Task Force organizers marshaled a lobbying and letter-writing campaign that also forced co-sponsors Rivera and Greene to take their names off the bill, according to legislative staff members. “The assemblywoman has been made aware that this a bill that could hurt tenants and she won’t be sponsoring it,” says a Greene aide.
But until recently, Ramirez was still lobbying for his entire delegation to stick with the bill, according to another Bronx assembly member. Calls to Ramirez, Arroyo and Kauffman were not returned.
The withdrawal of the bill may only be a symbolic victory for tenants. The measure can be thrown on the table any time during the session as Speaker Silver, Bruno and Pataki begin their three-man scrum on rent regulation behind closed doors this spring.
Strasburg can’t so easily dismiss the damage done to his cause by Senator Bruno’s bomb-throwing speech to the RSA’s membership at the organization’s annual meeting in early December. Bruno’s anti-regulation rhetoric backfired, uniting New York City politicians around the concept of preserving rent protections in a way no million-dollar tenant campaign ever could.
The day after the speech, both city tabloids published front-page stories warning that an upstater had declared war on New York City tenants. Rudolph Giuliani, who won Bruno’s praise in the speech and had until then remained mostly hush on the issue, immediately came out against changes to rent laws.
“We were surprised by what Bruno did,” says an RSA higher-up who thinks the majority leader’s speech did more harm than good. “I don’t know if he got carried away, but we didn’t expect him to throw those bombs.”
The Bruno incident points out a basic political calculus: if tenants and their friends in the assembly can hold their broad city-based coalition together, RSA’s strategy probably can’t succeed. If it becomes a public popularity contest between tenants and landlords, the tenants will almost certainly win.
“It’s a matter of whether a politician supports a tenant’s basic right to affordable housing or whether they are a shill for landlords,” says NYSTNC’s Billy Easton.
Strasburg himself recognizes the image problem. “I don’t like to use the word ‘landlord,'” he says. “It has a certain connotation.”