Londoners who crave pieds-a-terre in New York should take note: polls this month showed that 39 per cent of New Yorkers are considering leaving town for good - which could leave the city with a million hovels too many by the end of summer. The incipient exodus has nothing to do with Nostradamite predictions of imminent cataclysm, nor has it been brought on by the recent incursions of black bears at schools, restaurants and sleepy neighborhoods on the city's outskirts; nor does it signal a recurrence of the lebensraum-loving American urge to stake a claim in the western wilds and butcher one's own hogs. Quite the contrary - New Yorkers generally approve of the city more than they have for a decade or so (other polls show), and, given their druthers*, would be far less inclined than usual to evacuate. The problem is that troublemakers in the state capital want to jettison these druthers by allowing New York landlords to charge what they can get for rent, rather than what they are allowed to ask for by present laws - a democratic reform that would result in all usable spaces being let to Middle Eastern oil barons faster than you can say, "ku-Wait!" Rather than sit about waiting for eviction, many New Yorkers would apparently prefer to pack their hobo knapsacks and hit the road, if only to cut the element of surprise.

The dangers of rent deregulation are all the more keenly felt by New Yorkers because this is mid-May, after all - the time when strangers who have spent thousands of dollars reserving a room in a summer house at the seaside meet, receive keys and hash out Draconian summer-share rules with arbitrators who have the kind of power that Manhattan landlords presently only dream of. At such a meeting last week, twenty grown men and women - artists, writers, lawyers, bankers, producers and editors - had no choice but to meekly submit to being divided into Column A and Column B, accepting their allotment of alternating weekends and vastly unequal bedrooms in the massive "cottage'', and agreeing to bring guests on no more than one summer weekend. "l'm not a dictator, l'm not a dictator," the arbitrator, a film industry person whom we shall call Clyde, shouted as the tenants pleaded for leniency. "AIl in favor of allowing people to sleep on the floor raise your hands." As a few hands quiveringly reached ceilingward, one of the tenants dared to squeak out a question. "Can we move that if your guest can sleep in your room, he can come more than one weekend?" "No!" Clyde blasted. "I wanna get to know you guys, not your friends. We're gonna have a blast." A man was caught making mutinous gestures and quickly stuttered out an apology. "Sorry! You're a wise and just ruler. You're the Solomon of shares ..." Following an hour or so of fruitless debate, everyone sped off to dispatch urgent petitions to their congressman, mayor and governor demanding that Manhattan be spared the agony of Amagansett.

It may have been the frantic phone-calling and letter-writing campaigns of such Hampton-share negotiation veterans, or it may have been the weeks of news coverage of weeping mothers marching in the Bronx, babes in arms and fists in air, shouting "Save our homes!" or it could have been the well-publicised threats by cultural beacons that they would move to Los Angeles rather than forsake their $300 West Village two-bedroom flats, or their $600 Central Park West duplexes; but for whatever reason, politicians have begun a partial retreat from the Rent Wars. They now suggest that rents might scoot up only after present occupants leave (one such occupant received a friendly early-morning call from his landlord this week, informing him that the "real market value" of his breadbox-sized flat was easily $350 a month more than he pays, and encouraging him to ante up the extra chips or fold - a heart-warming augur of the loving landlord-tenant relations to come). And they bluster that if rent laws change on June 15, no one but conniving zillionaires would be adversly affected. The governer, who had pushed for the change in the first place, now declares that "Rent control must be preserved for all New Yorkers who need its protection, and it will be." Of course, he counts on the fact that, now Memorial Day has kicked off the summer Hamptons rush, the rabble will be so absorbed in more urgent protections - sunscreen and share agreements - that lawmakers will be able to make hay of the rent laws while the sun shines.

* what you Britishers call rights