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Thesp., Designer Sue NYS Over Eviction Clause

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An accomplished stage, film, and television actor and his wife, a costume designer, stand at the center of a lawsuit seeking to nullify a key aspect of the state and city housing laws.

The plaintiffs—two of a group of five, all Upper West Side residents—are Davis Hall, a veteran performer with credits that include the London stage, the McCarter Theatre, the Paper Mill Playhouse, and the NYC-based Lark Theatre Company, and Ingrid Price, the costume designer for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Represented by Colleen F. McGuire of the law firm of McGuire & Zekaria (whose speciality is tenants' rights), the group is suing Gov. George E. Pataki and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, a state agency.

At issue is a city law allowing landlords to evict tenants when they wish to use a dwelling for themselves or a member of their family. The plaintiffs, who held a press conference on Aug. 27 announcing the lawsuit, claim the rule is unconstitutional—a violation of the right to equal protection—because the law applies only to dwellings in New York City. Elsewhere in New York State, by contrast, rent stabilized tenants living in their homes for 20 years or more are exempt from the provision and thus cannot be evicted.

The loophole has long been cherished by New York City landlords as a convenient yet legal way to raise the rent on an apartment.

"We feel we have a very good case here," McGuire says, "because, frankly, I don't know what the state of New York is going to say in court—that New York City neighborhoods and tenants are less deserving of protection under the '20-year rule' than neighborhoods and tenants elsewhere in New York State? What is their rational basis for the disparate treatment—that the suburbs are entitled to have cohesion, stability, and diversity in their neighborhoods, but New York City isn't?"

Hall, she says, has been living in his apartment since 1973. For the last several years, however, the building's owner, Ervin Rosenfeld, has been "trying to make a kibbutz out of the building," a fact Hall confirms.

Rosenfeld's daughter, Hall says, "already has one apartment in the building, so now there are only two [tenants] left who have rent stabilized apartments, and the other one is a senior citizen." Seniors cannot, in any event, be evicted, so Hall and Price are "the only ones vulnerable" to Rosenfeld under the law being challenged.

Calls by Back Stage to Rosenfeld and his attorney, Dave Tendler, were not returned.

McGuire is careful to note that what is at stake is not the overall rent stabilization law in New York. Instead, it's the rights of tenants who moved into their apartments between 1971 and 1974, a "narrow class" of city dwellers who "attained their rent stabilization status through the 'Emergency Tenant Protection Act.'" That act, which amended even older legislation dealing with the city and state's perpetual housing challenges, was enacted into law because "the legislature…finds and declares that a serious public emergency continues to exist in the housing of a considerable numbers of persons in the state of New York…that there continues to exist an acute shortage of housing accommodations caused by continued high demand, attributable in part to...decreased supply."

It was also enacted because "preventative action by the legislature continues to be imperative…to prevent exaction of unjust, unreasonable and oppressive rent and rental agreements and to forestall profiteering, speculation and other disruptive practices…[such as] uncertainty, hardship and dislocation." Potential dislocation is exactly what is currently being faced by Hall, Price, and the other plaintiffs, who include a bookkeeper and two jewelry designers.

Interestingly, Hall sits on Actors' Equity's housing committee. The union, which Hall concedes "has a policy of not being political" on such hot-button issues as the need for affordable housing for performers, can at least, he says, "work on just getting information out to the membership about the housing situation in the city—that there are issues involving just what the [housing] law is. We've also been having seminars that explore the idea that if you can afford to rent, perhaps you can afford to buy."

Hall feels that the need for the committee is becoming clearer by the day. "Actors are having to leave the theatre district because they can't afford to live there anymore. Now, if you look at the entire theatrical profession, it's a major industry for the city—it seems to me if there was some kind of union coordination there would be a lot of clout there. I'd like to see the unions take some kind of stand on housing issues because we're certainly affected by them."

Yet even McGuire concedes that no matter how narrow or vociferous the lawsuit, "those who own property ultimately have more power and negotiating leverage with Albany than tenants. When they want to, they can form a formidable lobby."

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