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Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Housing Court Judged Inadequate

Saying landlords are harassing tenants in order to place wealthier folks where lower-rent residents are living, a fair housing group is working with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on legislation to amend the New York City Administrative Code to give tenants an additional – and potentially more effective – way to combat harassment.  

That legislation would make it possible for a tenant to bring suit in Housing Court for harassment by his landlord, says Benjamin Dulchin, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD) (Make the Road by Walking is a member), the group meeting with Quinn’s staff.

Currently, a tenant can’t bring a Housing Court suit on the basis of harassment, because city law doesn’t offer a “right of action” allowing it, says Dulchin. In fact, Housing Court won’t even take harassment into account as part of a tenant’s defense in a case brought by a landlord, Dulchin says. This means there is little deterrent against landlords bringing lawsuits that, by themselves, can be abusive, he says.

ANHD, a city coalition of 90 affordable housing organizations, says abusive behavior by the city’s landlords has been increasing, as climbing rents have made it more attractive to re-rent apartments at higher rates. Dulchin claims the scale of the city’s affordable housing loss indicates unethical tactics by landlords and says his group is “hearing a tremendous number of reports” of harassment. Besides frivolous lawsuits, harassment can take the shape of landlords serving fake legal notices or delaying repairs to force tenants into vacating, for example.

Not everyone agrees with ANHD’s assertions about the extent of harassment. The Rent Stabilization Association, a New York City real estate trade group with membership of 25,000 property owners, managing agents and others, says there’s no spike in harassment.

Also, the RSA says that while tenants can’t file a harassment suit in Housing Court, the court does take harassment incidents seriously. If there’s “a real situation” with harassment by a landlord, “the judge will refer it to” the appropriate city department, says Frank Ricci, director of government affairs with the RSA.

Dulchin says he hasn’t seen that happen. Officials with New York state’s court information service couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

The issue of harassment drew some media attention last week when ANHD held a “convention” to choose New York’s “most abusive landlord.” In a downtown church, New Yorkers from 12 neighborhoods voted on which of their nominees deserved the title. The owner of a building in Williamsburg took the top – or rather bottom – prize.

But dramatics aside, "the real focus of the event was to encourage City Council to move forward with new legislation to create a right of action" for harassment suits, said Dulchin.

The RSA’s Ricci says the city’s Unlawful Eviction Law, Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997, and Rent Stabilization Code shield tenants from abusive landlords.

"There’s already adequate protection for tenants," Ricci said, noting that tenants also can take their complaints to the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR).

Because it’s not presently possible to file a harassment case in Housing Court, the main way for tenants to advocate for themselves when it comes to landlord abuse is by filing a complaint with DHCR. The division then looks at the merits of the complaint and decides whether to hold a hearing.

Even if DHCR allows for a hearing, however, the tenant’s ability to put an end to the landlord’s behavior is limited, according to Dulchin’s group. DHCR gives violators low fines, which “can easily be ignored by the landlord as a cost of business,” ANHD claims.

Dulchin believes City Council can do more to curb landlord excesses than can DHCR, and that’s why his group is working with Quinn and the council.

The speaker’s office has “been meeting with ANHD and discussing” the issue of tenant harassment, says Maria Alvarado, press secretary for Quinn. Alvarado says she "can’t speak to any specific legislation or bills" and doesn’t have a date for when legislation could be announced, saying that discussions are ongoing.