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August 11, 1985
Cardinal Clips Koch's Crowing

by Ken Gross
Not that he lacked any moral stature in the past, but now that he is homeless, John Cardinal O'Connor speaks with a certain heightened authority about the business of housing in New York City.

"This is not a perfect bill," said the cardinal, referring to legislation that would freeze for 18 months a certain percentage of our dwindling housing stock.

"It would be better," he said, "if the moratorium were longer. It would better if it would prevent warehousing."

Mayor Edward I. Koch did not look pleased as he waited for the cardinal to complete his remarks. The mayor stood back with his aides, his arms folded tightly across his chest. But then, the mayor has his mansion -- featured in all its restored splendor in a weekly magazine -- and he has his rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village. The cardinal, at the moment, has no official residence.

"They're ripping out the plumbing," said the cardinal. He was speaking of his home at 452 Madison Ave. "The board of directors made me get out. They said that the plumbing was all shot. They're putting in sprinklers."

He has been homeless two months.

"Where have you been staying?" he was asked.

"Well this is a large diocese," he replied. "It reaches one hundred and thirty five miles upstate. I go to one parish and then another. I sit down and have talks with the people there. Find out about their problems. Many, many parishes."

The cardinal and his two secretaries have temporarily rented the home of an IBM executive in Hopewell Junction, Dutchess County. "We cook and clean and keep house, just like real people," he said, smiling.

During the weekend, the cardinal was in Washington on church business. He flew up for the ceremony at City Hall, even though he had to fly right back. The bill to freeze the Single Room Occupancy conversions was that important. However, he did not appreciate its many defects.

"I didn't realize there were so many limitations to this bill," he said. "I didn't know about the warehousing or the exclusions. This is a very important subject. I testified before a House committee on the subject of the homeless. I said that they should be able to find money from someplace to help the homeless."

"Where?" he was asked. "Where would you take the money from?"

The cardinal smiled. Of course there is only one place from which money can safely be taken. Cardinal O'Connor, a former admiral in the United States Navy, was talking about taking money from the Defense Department.

"When you have people who live and die in the streets," he said, "you must be creative about taking care of them. The people in the Defense Department, they must know, there comes a point at which you must decide what you are going to defend."

The mayor was not comfortable with the shifting and growing antipathy for his bill. All during the ceremony, he was subdued. Not once did he rise to some opponent's or reporter's bait and snap off a head. Not once did he even crack wise. He had the cardinal beside him, and the cardinal seemed to act as a restraining force.

There was, in addition, the fact that he had just come from a solemn ceremony in Harlem. He went there to dedicate the Charles Hill Towers. a 102-unit low- and moderate-income project. It was the last of the Section 8 federal money.

At City Hall, the mayor found himself in the uncomfortable position of playing host to a bill that no one seemed to endorse wholeheartedly. The signing ceremony seemed to be more of an apology than a celebration.

"I had to think about whether or not to show up today," said City Councilwoman Miriam Friedlander.

She was disturbed by the categories of tenants excluded by the terms of the bill. She was unhappy about the short term of the moratorium.

And the more qualms and reservations that she raised, the more lines appeared in Cardinal O'Connor's brow.

"I'm not a housing expert," he said afterward, "but she raised some troubling points."

George McDonald, candidate for City Council president, went so far as to speak against the bill. He advocated that the mayor not even sign it.

"This is, in effect, closing the barn door after the cows have gone," said McDonald.

In 1970, he said, there were more than 200,000 SRO housing units in the city. Today, there are fewer than 20,000. Half of these are being warehoused, or, held by speculators.

The moratorium will last for 18 months. It is retroactive to last January. That is, there are less than 11 months left before the moratorium expires. Eleven months during an election year. "The mayor is a prisoner of landlord interests," said McDonald afterward. "This is a shameless thing."

The mayor waited until the cardinal had finished his remarks to reporters after the ceremony. And then he did what he has been charged with doing all too often: He escorted someone out into the street. In this case, it was the cardinal.

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