En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The Village Voice
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

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."

* Including Make the Road New York