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

Slumming for Landlords

When it
comes to lopsided battles, it’s hard to top the steady war that’s long raged
between New York’s
landlords and their tenants.

Any given
weekday, just poke your head into a hearing room in the city’s housing courts.
There, row upon row of despairing tenants grimly clutch legal papers that
demand back rent and/or eviction. Stalking the aisles, briefcases in hand,
shouting out the names of their next victims, is a platoon of lawyers, all of
them representing building owners willing to spare no legal expense.

As combat,
this has all the fairness of a Panzer division rolling up on a fife-and-drum
corps.

More than 90
percent of tenants arrive in these corridors without any kind of legal
representation; for landlords, the ratio is the exact reverse. And no wonder:
At stake here are the enormous profits that New York’s housing market represents, now
more than ever.

A hefty
lawyer’s retainer? Just a business deduction. An apartment vacated by a tenant
paying an affordable, regulated rent? Priceless.

Which is
why a group of tenant advocates*
seized the moment last year and began pressing City Council Speaker Christine Quinn,
herself a former housing organizer, to introduce new legislation that would try
to balance the scales a little, giving tenants something more of a fighting
chance.

Quinn took
them up on it. Two disturbing trends, cited to her by the Association for
Neighborhood and Housing Development, caught the speaker’s attention: One is
the steady slippage of apartments from rent regulation for reasons having
nothing to do with reaching the magic deregulation mark of $2,000 a month; the
other is the recent flood of private-equity money into buildings occupied by
tenants whose current rents are nowhere near high enough to meet the returns
that the new investors are likely to demand.

The bill
that resulted from those talks would try to keep everyone honest. It would
allow tenants subjected to repeated and purposeful abuses—where owners have
withheld heat and hot water, constantly failed to make repairs, or dumped
garbage in the hallways—to cite landlords for harassment. For the first time,
harassment would be covered under the city’s housing-maintenance code, with
violators subject to stiff fines and other penalties.

Introduced
in October by Quinn and Manhattan council
members Daniel Garodnick, who fought to keep apartments at Stuyvesant Town
and Peter Cooper
Village affordable, and Melissa
Mark-Viverito, whose East Harlem district is
rapidly becoming a real estate hunting ground, Intro No. 627 is headed for
hearings later this month before the council’s housing and buildings committee.

As is a
little look-alike piece of legislation called Intro 638 that was quickly
introduced in response by a pair of Bronx
legislators happy to oblige the city’s ever-generous real estate lobby. The
competing bill mandates that every harassment complaint be screened outside the
courts to make sure it’s legitimate. It also contains the novel notion of
letting landlords sue tenants for their own harassment. The goal here is to
snuff this new tenants’-rights legislation in its cradle by generating much
heat and little light about its potential impact.

"We
just don’t want to open a Pandora’s box," said Joel Rivera, the
28-year-old council majority leader, whose father is Bronx Democratic Party
boss and State Assemblyman Jose Rivera. "Tenants who have a legitimate
case deserve their day in court. But what we’re worried about," Rivera
added as he sat in the gallery in the council chamber last week, "is that
there could be a lot of frivolous cases brought under this. We met with the
tenant groups, and I said, ‘I hear you, but I have a responsibility to make
sure it doesn’t produce frivolous cases.’ "

Here now is
a far-sighted legislator. Every day in housing court, there is a parade of
panicked tenants who have received eviction notices claiming they never paid
rent. They must comb through bureaus and pocketbooks in desperate search of
their receipts. After these crumpled papers are produced, the landlords’
lawyers shrug. "Never mind," they say. Since the tenants have no
lawyers of their own to sputter to the judge about this outrageously frivolous
and anxiety-producing waste of everyone’s time, these abuses go unchecked.

It has not
previously occurred to anyone that there could be a long line of vengeful
tenants bent on payback, scheming about filing their own frivolous lawsuits to
burn up the landlords’ profits. "It’s human nature," shrugged Rivera.

The
councilman was asked if he’d had any help crafting his bill. "No, this was
a result of a few of us in the council talking it over," he said.

Had he
consulted with landlord advocates, such as the Rent Stabilization Association,
the prime lobbying arm for building owners? "Just in passing," he
answered. Rivera couldn’t remember when or where the discussions took place, or
who the landlord representatives were. "I can’t remember who it was. But it
was just in passing, not a set meeting or anything."

The
landlord reps, whoever they were, said that what Speaker Quinn’s bill needed
was "balance," Rivera recalled.

Rivera is
actually not the lead sponsor on the counterproposal. That honor fell to Maria
Baez, another Bronx representative and a close
ally of the Rivera clan who once served as chief of staff to Rivera’s father.
When Baez’s name appeared on the bill, tenant organizers in her district asked
to discuss the matter.

"I
called her office and asked for a meeting," said Jackie Del Valle, an
organizer for CASA (Community Action for Safe Apartments), which is based on Townsend Avenue in
the West Bronx. "They said they’d get
back to me. Then we heard nothing for two weeks."

To get
Baez’s attention, Del Valle brought a couple dozen residents last Tuesday to
form a picket line in front of Baez’s office at 176th Street and the Grand Concourse.
They marched around an immense red dollar sign made of wood chanting about
tenant rights.

Among those
present was Harold Dell, 65, who lives on nearby Morris Avenue. "Right now the
landlord is a bank, and they keep taking us to court," he said. "We
can’t even find a super to call when things break." Maggie Silva, 72,
limped to the rally from her top-floor apartment on the Grand Concourse. Her
ceilings have collapsed repeatedly in the past three years. "She has had
to go to housing court every time to get repairs," said Del Valle.
"With this bill, she could file for harassment and, hopefully, get some
justice."

Baez wasn’t
at her office to meet Silva or hear the chants. At City Hall the next day, the
councilwoman was asked why she’d introduced the countermeasure. "For
balance," she said without breaking stride as she walked through the
rotunda. Had she met with the RSA, the landlord organization? "No. Never
met with them," she said.

Frank
Ricci, the longtime lobbyist for the RSA, remembered the process differently.
"We met with her, and with Rivera," he said in a telephone interview.
"Our concern with the Speaker’s bill is that there’s a potential for a lot
of frivolous cases and no one to screen them."

Had he just
been passing through when he met with the council members? "No," he
said, "it was a meeting. It was at City Hall. Baez and her staff, and
Rivera and his staff, were there."

Under term
limits, both Baez and Rivera are in their final years as council members.
Baez’s future plans are unclear, but in the game of musical chairs that term
limits creates, Rivera is expected to run for Bronx
borough president. Is that true, he was asked? He is an agreeable young man,
and his face crinkled into a smile. "That’s something we are looking
at," he replied.

Such a race
will cost at least $1 million. So far, Rivera has raised $155,000 toward that
goal. Half of it has come from the real estate industry.

* Including Make the Road New York