Tenants’ Voice

Bennett Baumer Feb 26, 2008

Are your lights out in the hallway? Is there a non-payment notice posted on the door? If a bad landlord has got you down, you are not alone. And soon you will have legal recourse.

The New York City Council will vote on Feb. 27 on Intro 627-A — a tenant anti-harassment bill. Intro 627-A would be the first law on the City’s books to penalize tenant harassment. Tenants would be allowed to take owners to housing court by filing an “Order to Show Cause” and have a judge order the landlord to stop the behavior. The bill provides fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for each apartment where harassment has 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.” The bill will penalize landlords for 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 during a Feb. 7 City Council hearing on the bill. Jackson, who represents parts of uptown Manhattan, co-sponsored the bill, along with eastside Manhattan council member Dan Garodnick and 34 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 passed, and landlords can sue for legal fees for frivolous tenant-initiated proceedings.

Harassing tenants can be economically beneficial to landlords. In many cases, the tactic is used to evict tenants from their rent-stabilized apartments. Once the stabilized tenants are gone, the landlord can increase rents by 20 percent, plus 1/40 the cost of any renovations. When the rent goes above $2,000 per month in vacant apartments, the owner can deregulate the apartment, charging market value rates and providing few tenant protections.

The Rent Stabilization Association
, the landlord lobby, has campaigned vigorously against Intro 627-A. Using their financial muscle they were able to craft a watered-down version of the harassment bill and got friendly council members to sponsor it.

An organized tenant movement, however, fought back. Sponsorship of the landlord-backed bill backfired for Bronx council members Maria Baez and Joel Rivera. Angry and organized tenants confronted council member Baez over the perceived selling-out of tenant interests by holding a picket outside her office at 176th Street in the Bronx.

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 disagrees. She pointed out that 98 percent 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].”

Intro 627-A was initially expected to pass in a vote on Feb. 13. The vote was rescheduled for Feb. 27 due to a “small, technical drafting error.”

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