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Harassed at Home No More

Bennett Baumer Feb 8, 2008

Shitty landlord got you down? Lights out in the hallway? Non-payment notice posted on the door? You are not alone and now you have recourse of action.

The New York City Council’s Housing and Buildings committee held a hearing on Thursday Feb. 7 to discuss Intro 627-A – a tenant anti-harassment bill. Intro 627-A would be the first law on the City’s books to penalize harassment by allowing tenants to take owners to housing court by filing an “Order to Show Cause” and having a judge order the landlord to stop the behavior. The bill provides fines of between $1,000-5,000 for each apartment where harassment occurred and makes harassment a class “C” housing code violation.

The bill defines harassment as any act “intended to cause any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of a dwelling unit to vacate such dwelling unit or to surrender or waive any rights in relation to such occupancy.” Acts specifically penalized are using force or verbal threats against tenants, discontinuance of basic services, frivolous lawsuits, illegal lockouts and removing entrance doors to occupied buildings.

“My understanding is that this bill gives tenants an avenue,” Council member Robert Jackson said. Jackson represents parts of uptown Manhattan and cosponsored the bill, along with eastside Manhattan Council member Dan Garodnick and others. “This [bill] gives protections to tenants and landlords, and is a fair bill going forward.”

One and two family houses, co-ops and condos are to be exempted from the bill if it passes, and landlords can sue for legal fees for frivolous tenant initiated proceedings.

Harassing tenants can be economically beneficial to landlords, as they can clear tenants from their rent stabilized apartments. Once the stabilized tenants are gone, the landlord gets a 20% vacancy increase, plus 1/40 the cost of any renovations. When the rent goes above $2,000 per month and there’s a vacancy, the owner can deregulate the apartment and then the sky’s the limit for the rent and there are little tenant protections.

The Rent Stabilization Association, the landlord lobby, has campaigned hard against Intro 627-A. Using their financial muscle they were able to craft a watered down version of the harassment bill and get friendly council members to sponsor it. But an organized tenant movement made them pay. Sponsorship of the landlord-backed bill backfired for Bronx council members Maria Baez and Joel Rivera. In an excellent article by Village Voice writer Tom Robbins, Community Action for Safe Apartments organizer Jackie Del Valle  (present at the hearing) recounts angry and organized tenants confronting Councilmember Baez over the perceived selling-out of tenant interests.  

(See: Slumming for Landlords

The landlord lobby has also circulated talking points that the anti-harassment bill would “clog the courts with frivolous lawsuits.”  But City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court Executive Director Louise Seeley doesn’t think so. She pointed out that 98% of housing court lawsuits are landlord initiated, most tenants are not represented by attorneys in court and it’s landlords that often file frivolous suits to get rent stabilized tenants out.

“Emptying long standing tenants from buildings is a business plan,” Seeley said. “Tenants do not have the time and money to spend the day in housing court [over frivolous cases].”

Into 627-A is expected to pass on February 13 when it is up for vote despite opposition.

 

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