HELP WANTED: PATAKI PUPPET?

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John Lynch, commissioner of the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, has one foot outside the agency’s door as he packs up his office and prepares to retire at the end of this month. Rather than seeing the seat as half empty, his boss, Gov. George Pataki, seems to be treating the turnover as a political opportunity several months before his race for re-election heats up.

Recently, the governor offered the position to Assemblyman Vito Lopez, chair of the Assembly’s housing committee and a Democrat from Brooklyn. After about two minutes of discussion, “I turned them down,” said Lopez. Why take a post that is solely designed to support the governor’s agendas, he said, adding that he had “created eight or nine solid housing programs and I wouldn’t be able to do this” at DHCR.

Nor would he be able to voice opposition, as he did last December, against state policies like the housing code changes that, among other things, excuse landlords from registering legal rents with the state housing agency each year and allow landlords to use “tenant harassment” as grounds for eviction.

These differences of opinion made a difference to Lopez, but for Pataki they could have meant a leg up with voters who place housing high on their agendas. As the governor prepares for his re-election campaign next fall against two housing-friendly Democrats–state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, former secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Renewal–“He is trying to move to the middle,” said Lopez. “He’s looking to include more Democrats in his administration.”

Given the indifference at least some landlord advocates seem to feel toward the DHCR commissioner, a tenant-friendly appointment might not hurt the governor with the real estate industry. The views of the keeper of that post are irrelevant, said Jack Freund, spokesperson for the Rent Stabilization Association. “Their job is to implement the law, and I believe the law is made by the state legislature and the courts.”

As of now, that position is still vacant, and whether the governor can endear himself to some housing advocates with this appointment is unclear. “The governor will have to show a more bipartisan effort when it comes to tenants’ rights,” said Michael McKee, associate director of Tenants & Neighbors, a housing advocacy group. “He’s certainly made no move to the left.”

To McKee, appointing Lopez would have been a move in the wrong direction. Given that the assemblyman could do a lot more in his current job than at the helm of the state’s housing department, he said, “I’m glad Vito didn’t take the job.”