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Victory for Tenants as Harassment Bill Passes

Bennett Baumer Feb 28, 2008

Yesterday the New York City Council unanimously passed Intro 627-A, a bill that gives tenants the right to sue landlords for harassment. The bill was cosponsored by Speaker Christine Quinn among 34 other council members. The harassment bill is a big victory for tenants under the gun to move out of affordable rent-regulated apartments that landlords could charge exorbitant rates.

The landlord lobby – the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and Rent Stabilization Association had waged a concentrated campaign against the bill. The landlord lobby’s central line of attack was to argue that Intro 627-A would clog the courts with tenant initiated frivolous lawsuits. In opposing the pro-tenant legislation, real estate attorney Adam Leitman Bailey commented that Intro 627-A would cause “thousands of lawsuits, millions of dollars in legal fees.” (see: http://ny.therealdeal.com/articles/turning-up-the-volume-on-landlord-tenant-bill)

Here’s how the New York Sun set the scene when the harassment bill was introduced in the Fall of 2007. (http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=419)

Casting herself as a tenant rights advocate at the risk of alienating political kingmakers in the real estate community is a delicate balancing act for the speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn.

Ms. Quinn, who is expected to run for mayor in 2009, introduced a bill yesterday that would allow tenants to take their landlords to Housing Court for harassment, opening the floodgates to a wave of new lawsuits. Cheering tenants crowded the steps of City Hall for the announcement, which was quickly denounced by real estate industry leaders.

But in a sign that Ms. Quinn may be able to appease both sides, those who said they oppose the tenant bill indicated that they would not punish the speaker over a single issue.

“Obviously, people will look at this who own rental apartment buildings, and they won’t be happy,” the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, Steven Spinola, said. “But on a lot of other issues, she’s been terrific and very strong.”

Mr. Spinola said he planned to talk to Ms. Quinn about making changes to the bill but wouldn’t say what he would propose amending. He predicated that the bill would clog up the courts and create nuisance lawsuits.

“This is going in the opposite direction of tort reform,” he said.

Earlier this week, advocates heard rumblings from the Housing and Buildings committee (where the bill sat in committee since October 2007) that some Queens and Brooklyn members were buying the frivolous suit claims. Committee members Leroy Comrie (D-Queens) and Thomas White Jr. (D-Queens) led the fight against Intro 627-A and prior to yesterday’s vote, had sponsored a water downed version of the bill that allowed landlords to sue tenants for harassment. (http://www.nysun.com/article/68273)

City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court Executive Director Louise Seeley testified at a committee hearing against the frivolous lawsuit claim.

“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].”

She also noted that 98 percent of housing court cases are filed by landlords – many on dubious grounds in an attempt to evict rent-stabilized tenants and jack up prices.

Committee chair Erik Dilan (D-Brooklyn) also seemed receptive to the frivolous lawsuit claims and was insisting on a clause in the bill that required tenants to report the harassment to the City before filing a housing court claim. 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. When tenants sue landlords for repairs in housing court or go on rent strike due to poor conditions, they are not required to report their complaints to the City. (Though reporting complaints bolsters court cases because the City’s housing agency will record any code violations).

Advocates and tenants feared the bill would not make it out of committee or be voted down before the full City Council. But more rational heads prevailed and Speaker Quinn flexed her muscle by a show of unanimous support. Mayor Bloomberg is expected to sign it into law.

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