Free Legal Advice for Tenants Battling Landlords

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Over 40 people gathered in a room at the Goddard Riverside Community Center last Wednesday night, some clutching legal notices and copies of leases, all hoping to get some advice on how to remain in their homes.

The attendees of the housing clinic run by Goddard Riverside's SRO Law Project, The Urban Justice Center and City Council Member Gale Brewer came for free legal help in dealing with complicated housing laws and the landlords that target single room occupancy tenants.

On this night, as people were called one by one into a separate room to consult privately with lawyers, some of whom were volunteering their time, a staff attorney from the SRO Law Project gave a presentation about what happens when a landlord alleges that a tenant has an apartment that is not a primary residence.

After a tenant described his problem-his landlord was rifling through his apartment when he's not there-attorney Catalina Rosales told the group that this kind of snooping is unfortunately more prevalent than it should be. "It might sound incredible to you, but it's not uncommon when you have these big landlords who can make a lot of money from kicking you out," she said.

Because of a policy called vacancy deregulation, landlords are able to make larger rent increases on vacant rent-regulated apartments if they make improvements to them. Once the rent reaches above $2,500, that apartment is no longer under rent regulation and the landlord can then charge whatever the market will bear. As a result, landlords have incentives to persuade longtime tenants to leave, sometimes offering them cash sums, sometimes submitting erroneous claims in housing court and sometimes resorting to harassment.

As Rosales fielded questions, she continued to offer examples of what she says are commonplace occurrences. Landlords will sometimes hire investigators to follow tenants in order to establish that they don't living at their apartment for 183 days of the year, the legal threshold for primary residency. Sometimes, landlords will require doormen or management company workers to report on whether or not they see a tenant on a regular basis.

"If you have suspicions, listen to your instincts because you're probably right," Rosales said. "If you live in a pretty secure building and all of sudden you have five cameras and all of them are pointed at your apartment, probably something's going on. I know it sounds paranoid, but it's not unheard of."

While it's an entirely legal practice, Rosales said, it often leads to dubious claims from a landlord that a tenant is then forced to disprove. One tenant cited a case of a friend who worked full-time and went to school at night, only coming home to her apartment to sleep at night; her landlord claimed that she was never seen by building staff and was able to evict her based on the allegation that she didn't live at her apartment.

Other examples that Rosales said are common are instances in which a tenant goes away temporarily or is often not home for a period in order to care for an ailing parent. These people return home from an out-of-state trip to find a notice of termination.

Marie Mazzarella, 62, said she had finally given up battling a landlord who has been trying for decades to get her to move out of her apartment, which costs $1,000 a month.

Her landlord, she said, seized upon the facts that she has a roommate, whom she says is on the lease, and that she sometimes travels to Florida. The last time she landed in housing court, she said she would rather get a two-year lease renewal and then move to Florida permanently than continue to battle her landlord. She agreed to give up the ability to contest the landlord in court after the lease is up.

"I'm tired," she said. "I'm getting out because I just can't fight anymore."

Brewer, who sponsors the clinic, said she sees the work there as vital to the community.

"Other legal services are income-based. I'm a big believer in no needs test. When you're a tenant, anything can happen," she said. "That clinic, at $20,000 a year, has saved I don't know how many people their apartments."

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