En EspaƱol Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Dueling Bills in the Fight Over Housing

A bill
recently proposed in the City Council and known as Introduction 627 has been
heralded by many tenants and housing advocates as a measure that would provide
long-overdue protections to renters. It would, for the first time, give tenants
the right to sue their landlords in Housing
Court for harassing them by making threats,
disrupting services or using other tactics to force them out.*

But a
rival bill, Introduction 638, would give aggrieved landlords a new legal tool,
too. It would allow them to sue tenants for harassment, like making repeated
complaints to city agencies that turn out to be baseless.

The bills
are the latest skirmish in the city’s long cold war between landlords and
tenants. Both measures, which call for stiff court-ordered fines, also contain
dueling definitions of harassment.

One side
describes it as a technique that landlords use to drive out poor tenants in
hopes of getting wealthier ones, and the other says that is an unfair
accusation hurled at landlords who are using legitimate means to evict bad
renters.

The
tenants’ bill, introduced by Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Councilman
Daniel R. Garodnick and Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, has earned the
support of 34 of the Council’s 51 members. The bill that is more favorable to
landlords is sponsored by Councilmen Leroy G. Comrie Jr. and Thomas White Jr.

Beyond
anecdotal evidence, city housing officials say they have no data on the number of
cases concerning harassment by either landlords or tenants. But some council
members, housing advocates, legal aid lawyers and tenants say that instances of
landlords harassing renters are on the rise and that the harassment has become
more subtle than in decades past.

In the
late 1960s and early 1970s, some landlords were criticized for hiring
relocation companies that resorted to questionable and even criminal actions to
clear buildings of tenants. Essential services were cut off, or locks were
broken to allow vagrants into buildings. In one lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general’s office in 1972 against two
relocation and management companies, an unleashed dog was allowed to roam a Manhattan building.

The
actions may be less blatant these days, but they are no less menacing, several
housing advocates and tenants said. Some landlords, they said, repeatedly take
tenants to Housing Court
for trivial or baseless reasons, pressure tenants to accept buyouts and refuse
to make repairs.

Vivian
Martinez, 35, shared an apartment for years in Greenpoint, Brooklyn,
with her parents and brothers. After a fire damaged the building in June 2004,
Ms. Martinez and her relatives were forced to move, although they hoped to
return.

She said
that for more than three years the landlord has stalled making repairs to their
apartment because her parents have turned down repeated buyout offers,
preventing the building from being turned into condos.

"The only
phone calls that we get from him is, ‘Take the buyout, take the buyout,’ and we
don’t want it," said Ms. Martinez, who testified on Dec. 17 at a Council
committee hearing about the two bills.

Benjamin
Dulchin, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing
Development, which represents nonprofit housing groups, said harassment was one
of the reasons that housing for low-income families was disappearing from the
city. "Landlords are buying these buildings knowing that they can use illegal
and semilegal means to push out the low-paying tenants," said Mr. Dulchin,
whose group supports the bill backed by Ms. Quinn.

The Rent
Stabilization Association, a trade group that represents New York City landlords, disputed the
assertion that harassment of tenants is a widespread problem. "There is a
perception out there that every violation in a building, that every time there
is a failure to provide heat, every time a landlord brings a case against a
tenant that is unsuccessful, that this is somehow perceived as a form of
harassment," said Mitchell Posilkin, the group’s general counsel.

The
landlord group opposes both bills, though it says that Mr. Comrie and Mr.
White’s bill is "less objectionable," Mr. Posilkin said. He added that at least
10 existing laws address the same issues, including the city’s Illegal Eviction
Law, which makes it a misdemeanor for a property owner to use force or
intimidation to evict a tenant.

But Ms.
Quinn, a former housing organizer, said that none of those other laws give
tenants the right to take their landlords to Housing Court for harassment. And she
doubted that tenants were harassing landlords in large numbers.

"This
idea that there is rampant landlord harassment perpetuated by tenants is a red
herring," Ms. Quinn said.

Mr.
Comrie, whose district is in southeast Queens, said that landlords, many of
whom own small buildings, often contact his office to complain about tenants
who harass them by refusing to pay rent or by embroiling them in drawn-out
cases in Housing Court.

Currently,
the city’s Housing Maintenance Code does not consider harassment of tenants or
landlords a violation; tenants can sue their landlords in Housing Court only for problems with
essential services or the physical condition of their apartment.

Ms.
Quinn’s bill would allow a judge to fine landlords $1,000 to $5,000 for
harassment. It would define harassment as making threats, interrupting
essential services repeatedly, taking tenants to court for baseless reasons and
disturbing the comfort of occupants frequently. The measure also states that if
three harassment allegations against a landlord are dismissed over a period of
10 years, a tenant would have to receive permission from a judge to file
another.

The
landlords’ bill was originally introduced by Councilwoman Maria Baez of the Bronx. But following a noisy protest outside her district
office by Bronx housing activists, she
withdrew her support and now backs Ms. Quinn’s bill.

The
landlords’ bill would prohibit tenants from threatening owners, making frequent
baseless complaints to a governmental agency, taking landlords to court
repeatedly without cause and interfering with the comfort or safety of owners
or tenants.

Mr.
Comrie said he was neither pro-tenant nor pro-landlord and was hoping for a
compromise bill. He is also, it turns out, a sponsor of Ms. Quinn’s bill.

"It’s
really about trying to make sure that we protect all New York City residents, not just playing
tenants against landlords or vice versa," he said. "I wanted to ensure that
there was a debate."

* Make the Road is a founding
member of the coalition that drafted Introduction 627