En Español Know Your Rights
Source: Downtown Express
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

New Bill Includes Penalties for Repeat Harassment

A hearing on Monday on a tenant anti-harassment bill drew a
crowd that nearly filled the Council Chamber at City Hall.

Thirty-four councilmembers, including Council Speaker
Christine Quinn, have signed on as sponsors of the bill in the face of a
citywide increase in harassment of rent-regulated tenants.

The Bloomberg administration’s Department of Housing
Preservation and Development mostly supports the bill. But Joseph Rosenberg,
deputy commissioner of H.P.D., called for a provision giving landlords an added
defense against wrongful harassment charges.

Waving signs that said "Stop Tenant Harassment"
and "Save Affordable Housing," tenant representatives in favor of the
bill overwhelmed opponents at the Dec. 17 hearing.

Nevertheless, real estate representatives and property
owners were on hand to insist that tenants have remedies against landlord
harassment in existing laws. Owners of small residential properties also
protested that tenant harassment of landlords was a real problem.

But tenant advocates declared that existing remedies for
abuse are embodied in the state housing code, which has no definition of
harassment. Moreover, the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal has
no power to enjoin harassment.

The proposed Intro 627 defines harassment as any act or
omission — such as repeated interruption or withholding of services — by a
landlord that causes or is intended to force a legal tenant to vacate an
apartment. Using force or threats of force against legal tenants is the heart
of the matter.

"This bill is a great step forward in tenant protection
and the preservation of affordable housing," said Quinn. She said Intro
627 is a follow-up to the recently passed Safe Housing Law,* which forces
landlords with the worst records for maintenance and services to fix their
properties.

"We hope this bill sends a message that harassment will
not be tolerated," Quinn said.

A key harassment act defined in the new proposal is filing
repeated baseless or frivolous lawsuits against legal tenants. Tenant advocates
said that baseless lawsuits have become a standard form of harassment.

"One landlord in Sunset Park
filed a lawsuit against a tenant that didn’t even state a cause of
action," said Edward Josephson, representing Legal Aid. "We were able
to get the suit dismissed immediately, but there was no penalty for filing the
suit. Most tenants don’t have lawyers, and we only have resources to represent
about 10 percent of the tenants in Housing
Court," he said.

Dona Chin, of MFY Legal Services, said the bill would put a
crimp in efforts by landlords to "scare tenants, especially the elderly
and people with limited English, into giving up their apartments."

"Last year the owner of a building on the Lower East Side sued a tenant in Supreme Court for
$85,000…simply because the tenant was allowing city inspectors onto the
premises to report on hazardous conditions in the building," Chin said.

Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, representing East
Harlem, a prime sponsor of the bill along with Councilmember Daniel Garodnick,
noted that two international real estate companies, Pinnacle and Dawnay Day,
have recently acquired hundreds of rent-regulated units in Manhattan with the up-front expectation that
regulated tenants can be forced out to make way for new tenants paying higher
rent.

The new proposal would allow tenants to go to Housing Court for a
judgment of harassment against a landlord. If a landlord has filed two
unsuccessful lawsuits against a tenant in the previous 10 years and a third
lawsuit against the tenant is deemed frivolous, the landlord could be found
guilty of harassment.

The penalty would be a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000 for
each unit where the violation occurred and possibly no rent increase for the
harassed units. The most important deterrent to harassment would be a Housing
Court restraining order against further violations of the law — a measure not
available under current city or state regulations.

Doris Diether, a Village resident, spoke against the
anti-harassment bill, but on the grounds that penalties against harassing
landlords would be too lenient. The fines, she said, would be just a cost of
doing business.

Intro 627 also enables landlords to seek dismissal of a
tenant harassment claim and enables a landlord to get an injunction against
further harassment proceedings if a tenant has issued two harassment
proceedings against a landlord that have been dismissed in the previous 10
years and a subsequent third proceeding is deemed frivolous. If a tenant’s
harassment claim is deemed frivolous, the landlord could be awarded court
costs.

Landlord representatives at the hearing said the proposal
would overcrowd an already crowded Housing
Court with an untold number of tenant-initiated
harassment suits. But Councilmember Rosie Mendez, a sponsor of Intro 627,
disputed the claim.

"The bulk of Housing
Court actions are filed by landlords," Mendez
said. She noted that two parts of Housing
Court are devoted to landlord-initiated suits
while just one part is reserved for tenant actions.

"Tenants would rather stay out of Housing Court," Mendez observed.

Tenant advocates noted that while large landlords retain
lawyers whose function is to go to court, most tenants go to Housing Court without lawyers and often
lose a day of work or a vacation day in doing so.

Nevertheless, the Office of Court Administration submitted a
statement opposing the measure, expressing the fear that it would indeed add to
the burden of a Housing Court
that handles 300,000 cases per year in the five boroughs.

An alternative anti-harassment bill, Intro 638, would create
a process whereby H.P.D. would review tenants’ charges of harassment against
landlords, instead of tenants filing actions themselves in Housing Court. However, H.P.D. Deputy
Commissioner Rosenberg said at the hearing that Intro 638 would force the
agency to expand its legal staff to handle a more complicated workload.

Rosenberg
said that while H.P.D. assigns its lawyers to Housing Court to advise judges, the
agency is not empowered to grant orders of relief to either tenants or
landlords; that is a function reserved to the courts.

(Photo Caption:  A
large group of residents and advocates† attended a City Council hearing to
support a tenant anti-harassment bill.)

* Legislation spearheaded by Make the Road New York and the Association
for Neighborhood and Housing Development

† Including Make the Road New York members