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

New Law Lets Tenants Sue Over Harassment

Mayor
Michael R. Bloomberg signed a bill into law on Thursday that for the first time
gives tenants the right to sue their landlords in Housing Court for using threats and other
forms of harassment to force them out.

The new
law was passed by the City Council last month with overwhelming support from
tenant groups, housing activists and legal advocates** who said landlord
harassment of tenants had increased in recent years.

Previously,
the city’s Housing Maintenance Code had not classified harassment as a
violation, so tenants were restricted in taking landlords to Housing Court for problems with services
or the physical condition of units. The new law makes harassment a housing code
violation and allows a judge to impose civil penalties from $1,000 to $5,000.
It takes effect immediately.

"While we
believe that the vast majority of landlords throughout the city are responsible
and do not engage in tenant harassment, we cannot turn our backs on the bad
actors who participate in such behavior," Mr. Bloomberg said at a bill-signing
ceremony.

Harassment
is defined in the new law as the use of force or threats, repeated
interruptions of essential services, the frequent filing of baseless court
actions and other tactics that "substantially interfere with or disturb the
comfort, repose, peace or quiet" of any unit’s lawful occupant.

Mr.
Bloomberg said the law also provided some protections for owners, including
allowing a judge to award attorney fees to owners if tenants’ harassment claims
are found to be frivolous.

Tenant
leaders and City Council members, including the speaker, Christine C. Quinn,
gathered on the steps of City Hall to celebrate the law, which they described
as a much-needed layer of protections for New Yorkers living in the city’s 2
million renter-occupied units.

At the
rally, two Spanish-speaking tenants, one from Brooklyn and the other from the Bronx, accused their landlords of harassing them. The Brooklyn tenant said that her landlord has refused to
make basic repairs, such as fixing the shower.

When she
complained about problems with bed bugs, her landlord told her to put the
insects in a tortilla and eat them, she said.

The law
was opposed by the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade association
representing 25,000 New York City
property owners and managers. Mitchell Posilkin, the association’s general
counsel, disputed claims that tenant harassment was widespread and said there
already were at least 10 laws that addressed tenant harassment.

"In light
of all of the existing remedies that are available to tenants, and in light of
the failure of any of the bill’s supporters to document or establish any
patterns of harassment in the City of New York or any systematic harassment, it
leads one to question what the motives behind this legislation really are," Mr.
Posilkin said.

Because
harassment was not previously considered a housing code violation, the city’s
Department of Housing Preservation and Development did not keep data on the
number of cases of alleged tenant harassment. In December, Ann Pfau, the chief
administrative judge of the New York State Unified Court System, wrote to
Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, chair of the Council’s Housing and Buildings
Committee, expressing concern that the law would "impose additional burdens on
the already severely overburdened Housing
Court
."

Ms.
Quinn, a sponsor of the bill, said she would work with court officials to
provide more resources if needed. "If the law is that significant that the
court is worried it’ll be overwhelmed by it," she said, "the answer isn’t to
then legally ignore the existence of that problem."

Two
council members, Leroy G. Comrie Jr. and Thomas White Jr., had sponsored a
rival bill that would have allowed landlords to sue tenants for harassment. Mr.
Comrie and Mr. White ended up supporting Ms. Quinn’s bill.


**Including Make the Road New York