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Rent Asunder

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A not uncommon story is that of the couple who live in a brownstone on East 87th Street owned by a client of real-estate lawyer Howard Stern. The couple maintain a rent-stabilized one-bedroom for $821 a month -- which has allowed them to purchase a spacious retreat in Columbia County. "The wife keeps her driver's-license address and car registration upstate to take advantage of lower insurance rates," Stern says. "The husband maintains his driver's license and makes sure he votes in Manhattan to take advantage of rent regulations." They're the archetypal Manhattan couple, fingerpicking the system with the delicacy of a Segovia. "And the law permits it," Stern adds. "Holidays and weekends, they go up to their country home, which is in effect subsidized, because their rental is nowhere near what the market rate would be."

"It was always this running joke in the building that the smaller the rent, the larger the apartment, but now no one's laughing anymore," says Andrew, 41, the screenwriter. He and his wife are now shopping -- reluctantly -- for a family home in New Jersey. Last summer, they were served a 70 percent increase on their rent, taking it to $6,000. Andrew was already feeling rather uncharitable toward his rent-protected neighbors this past winter when he was forced to witness yet another flexing of their statutory muscle: Management removed a bulletin board from the building's lobby on which the tenants posted announcements for meetings and such. "They took this as an attack on their right to free speech and staged a near revolt," Andrew groans.

"It's a lousy system, just completely backwards," he says, sighing. "It's the rent-stabilized people who go to the tenant meetings and complain the loudest. Why? Because they can. We who pay so much more money are afraid to rock the boat. We're the ones who are going to have to sit face-to-face with the landlord and negotiate a new lease every two years."

Barbara, an accountant, and her partner, Maria, a travel agent, live in a prewar building in Murray Hill. The building has some 50 units, and perhaps 10 are rent-stabilized, including one that belongs to a couple who live next door to them who pay $850 for a spacious two-bedroom. Barbara and Maria, meanwhile, have seen their rent spike by as much as 20 percent every time their lease is up. They're now shopping in Astoria, because they feel priced out of Manhattan.

"It's unbelievable what they get away with," says Barbara, 41. "The apartment has been in the family for years, so they do anything they want to, because they know they can. For a long time, they were smoking such incredible amounts of pot that the smell was wafting into our apartment. It drove us crazy. Plus, it turns out, they had a six-foot python in their apartment for years. We didn't hear about it until it died and they left the carcass out on top of the garbage bags in front of the building."

The landlord is little help. "We complain to the landlord," she says. "But he's too terrified to do anything at all about it. He knows they could haul him into housing court at the slightest provocation. He just says, 'Hey, if you want to try to put together a tenants' petition, fine, but there's no way I'm getting involved.' There's another rent-controlled guy who keeps a big dog that's always barking, even though there's a sign in the lobby that clearly reads DOGS NOT ALLOWED. He says he's keeping it for a friend, but he's been keeping it for, like, three years."

Still, Barbara supports rent control in theory. "The problem is looking at it in terms of camps, the rent-controlled versus the rest of us, because it's basically all of us versus the landlord," she says. "I'm the last person who would argue that people should be thrown out of rent-controlled apartments. I'd kill for one myself. The rent-controlled people are just doing to the landlord what we all wish we could get away with."

Already, Leslie, the Upper West Side television producer, is starting to monitor the battle unfolding in Albany. After the initial uproar following Silver's recent bill in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, it's been eerily quiet. The Republican-dominated Senate so far has yet to take up Silver's challenge and at this point seems intent on holding off the fight until it becomes inevitable next year, when the current laws do actually expire. Albany insiders on both sides of the issue predict a war for the future of rent regulation to match the vicious fight of 1997.

In the meantime, some find longtime homes transforming before their eyes. Leslie sees the pleasing Annie Hall time warp that she and her husband enjoyed for decades vanishing into a new-money void. "They seriously dress to kill," Leslie says. "You'll get the major babe with the major designers and the major jewelry. It's getting to the point where I'm going to start having to put on makeup for the elevator."

Every time the lease renewal comes due, she is forced to scrutinize an ever-more-intimidating series of documents written in dense legalese. "I get really anxious about it. You just feel like there's a gotcha game going on, like they're looking for any little mistake to use as an excuse to get rid of the stabilized tenants," she says. "I reread every page 85 times. I always feel this tremendous tension, like if I don't dot every i, they can throw you out."

Michael Lutin, a tenant organizer in his building on West End Avenue, scoffs at the growing demonization of rent-regulated tenants he feels across the city, particularly in his own building. "Oh, there are very few of those little old blue-haired Jewish ladies living in three-bedroom apartments for $400 anymore," he scoffs. "That was not fair to landlords or to other people in the building. But a lot of us aren't paying $8,000 in rent for our apartments, either. I don't feel bad about that. They're not worth $8,000."

An astrologer who writes Vanity Fair's horoscopes column, Lutin sounds perfectly terrestrial when he assesses the cultural divide within buildings.

"Nonregulated tenants resent us regulated tenants very foolishly," he says. Lutin is currently forming a residents' group intent on uniting all tenants. "They were stupid enough to come in when the rent was $8,000. That was nobody's fault but their own. Who in their right mind is going to pay $96,000 a year down a rathole? But to be against rent-regulated tenants is crazy, because we're the only ones with clout in the building!" It's been to landlords' advantage, he adds, to divide tenants. "I have the law on my side. You have money on your side. You're afraid that if you dare make a squeak, they'll jump the lease up to $16,000. I'm telling you, if we all stick together, they won't do that."

An editor at a midtown publishing house, Raymond, 33, has witnessed the tension from both sides of the divide. He lives in a stabilized one-bedroom in the Village and pays a little over $1,000 a month. For the first few years, his upstairs neighbor was an elderly and irascible man, a rent-controlled tenant paying only about $250 for the same-size place. He infuriated Raymond by leaving his bath taps on so water would cascade into the downstairs apartment. Eventually, however, the old man died and Raymond looked forward to starting afresh with civil neighbors.

The landlord was happy, too, especially as the new tenants, a young married couple, were paying more than $2,500. Unfortunately, Raymond's enthusiasm was short-lived. "The wife worked really late," he says. "And every time she got home, she'd go tromping around on their hardwood floor in heels. I mean, call me sexist, but women's shoes make a lot more noise than men's, and she was being really aggressive on the floors. It just seemed gratuitous. Finally, I went up to complain. I was very polite. They just said, 'Yeah, so what? We pay a hell of a lot more money than you do to live here. We'll do what we like.' "


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