Council Hears Pro and Cons of Landlord Harassment Bill
Battle-weary tenants, affordable housing advocates and a few landlords packed City Council chambers this week to argue for and against legislation that would allow tenants to sue landlords who harass tenants.
Under current law renters can take their landlords to court for failing to provide heat or hot water or for other individual violations of housing codes, but harassment is not defined as a violation on its own.
A bill before the council would define harassment intended to force a tenant from their home as a housing violation in its own right. As gentrification and rising rents continue to radiate throughout the city (who ever thought the cool kids would be moving to Bushwick and Hunts Point) increasing numbers of tenants say they are feeling the heat from landlords who want to replace rent-stabilized or lower-rent-paying tenants with the armies of young professionals willing to pay ever higher and higher rents, Benjamin Dulchin, Deputy Director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development told the city council’s housing committee.
Carmen Hurtado, who has lived in her Williamsburg apartment 11 years waited nearly five hours to tell the council her story. “I’m a responsible tenant. I don’t bother anyone, I pay my rent on time,” she told the housing committee in Spanish. “But every time I demand repairs in my apartment my landlord calls the police. He takes me to court very often. My guess is he wants to get me out because the rents are going up.”
While she can complain to the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development or initiate a housing court action if repairs aren’t done, the legislation being reviewed yesterday would create a legal means for Hurtado to address the harassment itself.
While no one at the hearing—the first on bill 627—had hard numbers on how many tenants are harassed by property owners who want to make more money on their apartments, Dulchin said anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is growing.
“A few years ago we began to hear from member groups that harassment was becoming a widespread concern,” Dulchin said, noting that some real estate investment companies purchase rent-stabilized buildings with the express intention of getting rid of current tenants and replacing them with market rent paying ones.
To get rent paying, lease-holding tenants out, unscrupulous owners bring tenants to housing court on trumped up charges, withhold services like heat, refuse to make repairs and threaten to expose tenants immigration status, Dulchin said. “Harassment is becoming a standard business procedure. It is a major underlying factor in the loss of affordable housing in the city,” he said. Thirteen thousand units of affordable housing are converted to market rate each year, according to city records.
Edward Josephson, director of litigation for South Brooklyn Legal Services, a legal aid society agency, said his office has represented several tenants who were brought to housing court on frivolous charges and unwittingly signed away their right to live in their apartments. “This happens all the time,“ he said. “This kind of harassment is not confined to Manhattan. It is in every neighborhood in every borough.”
The bill, sponsored by Councilman Daniel Gardonick (East side) and Melissa Mark-Viverito (East Harlem) would permit tenants to charge their landlords with harassment in housing court. If a housing court judge found a property owner guilty of harassing a tenant with the intension of convincing them to vacate their apartment the property owner would be subject to a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000 and be required to fix conditions at the building. Landlords who repeatedly brought suits that were dismissed on their merits as frivolous and tenants who did the same would be barred from future lawsuits against the same person.
The city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development supported the legislation but recommended changes to specify the definition of tenant harassment and establish a standard of landlord behavior. After meeting with the Rent Stabilization Association, a pro-landlord group, Councilmembers Joel Rivera and Maria Baez, two Bronx Democrats, have introduced a competing bill, a gift to landlords, that would "snuff this new tenants'-rights legislation in its cradle by generating much heat and little light about its potential impact," Tom Robbins reported in the Voice earlier this month.
While tenants from community organizations in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Harlem, Washington Heights and the Bronx listened and occasionally jeered as Frank Ricci director of government affairs at the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 owners or more than one million rent stabilized units citywide, said the harassment law would embolden tenants to harass landlords.
“These are going to effect every building owner in the city. Its going to allow some tenants to harass landlords and its going to clog up the court with frivolous cases,” he said. Ricci argued that tenants could already bring negligent landlords to housing court to force repairs and did not need a new law. Christopher Athineos, a member of the Small Property Owners of New York who owns buildings in Brooklyn said the law would overwhelm Housing Court.
“There are numerous existing remedies for tenants. There must be a balance. We must be sure remedies within those agencies work before piling more legislation on an already overburdened system,” he said.
Lower Eastside Council member Rosie Mendez scoffed at the landlords’ objections, pointing out that the vast majority of cases in housing court are initiated by landlords, not tenants. Josephson from South Brooklyn Legal Services said 98 percent of housing court’s 300,000 cases each year are begun by landlords. “This bill will help to redress the balance of landlords who begin frivolous and repeated cases against tenants to force them out of their homes. If this results in tenants bringing 3 percent, instead of 2 percent of cases, we don’t think that will create an undo burden on the court.”