Bill Highlights Issues For Harassed Tenants

16 Feb 2015 | 11:42

Lawmakers hope increased penalties for tenant harassment will deter unscrupulous landlords

A recently passed measure in the city council that toughens penalties for landlords found guilty of tenant harassment is receiving mixed reviews from affordable housing advocates, who say increasing penalties against unscrupulous landlords is a worthy cause, but more must be done.

The legislation, sponsored by council members Margaret Chin and Jumaane Williams, actually amends a pre-existing bill that levied a $5,000 fine to landlords found guilty of harassment. The amendment doubles that fine to $10,000 and will also result in the guilty landlord's name being posted to a public list on the city's Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development's website.

Sue Susman, president of the Central Park Gardens Tenants' Association, who also runs a popular mailing list on affordable housing issues and is considered a communication hub in the affordable housing community, said the amendment is an important step in the right direction but that the definition of what constitutes harassment must be broadened.

"Right now, landlords have their agents call rent regulated tenants offering money to move, with an implied or spoken 'or else we'll see you in court,' and that's perfectly legal," said Susman, who has a law degree from NYU and is currently involved with the Real Rent Reform Campaign.

There's also the matter of landlords taking tenants to court in frivolous lawsuits that are eventually tossed out but nonetheless cause financial and emotional damage, she said, which is a currently legal and effective form of harassment.

Susman praised the amendment but said she'd like the public shaming aspect to have deeper consequences for landlords.

"I like that HPD will post information about violations," she said. "But who would be affected by those postings? I'd be thrilled if there were a consequence that protected tenants directly, such as the requirement that all apartments in the affected building must remain rent regulated for the duration of their current occupants' tenancies."

Sam Himmelstein, a well-known housing lawyer who exclusively represents tenants in these matters, praised the amendment but said he'd like to see the fine go to the tenants who are harassed, not into the city's coffers.

"After all, they're the ones that are being adversely affected," he said.

Katie Goldstein is the executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, a grassroots organization that seeks to empower affordable housing tenants through organizing, educating and legislative advocacy. She said the city council amendment is "great," but that there are deeper issues in play at the state level.

"The real issue is that loopholes in the rent laws economically incentivize harassment as owners try to get to the decontrol threshold of $2,500 to deregulate the unit," said Goldstein.

Goldstein is talking about vacancy decontrol, a mechanism whereby if an owner of a building can get the monthly rent of a particular unit up over a certain threshold ? currently $2,500 ? that unit becomes deregulated and can be rented at market rate.

Landlords work towards that threshold in a variety of ways: Rent Guidelines Board increases, major capital improvements, and something called a "vacancy allowance," which allows a landlord to charge an additional 20 percent of the original rent to a new tenant of a rent stabilized unit that was previously vacated.

On paper, an MCI is a costly but necessary infrastructure upgrade to a building that's spread out over a number of years in the form of additional fees on a tenant's monthly rent bill. But some tenant leaders have accused landlords of abusing the system by foisting on them the cost of unnecessary upgrades.

The 20 percent vacancy allowance can be further increased by anywhere from 1/40th to 1/60th of the original rent if the landlord makes improvements to the apartment while it's vacant.

Goldstein gave an example of the path to vacancy decontrol with a hypothetical rent stabilized apartment that goes for $1,000/month. If the tenant moves out, the 20 percent vacancy bonus is added onto the rent, and the rent is $1,200. The owner then does $10,000 of improvements in the apartment, and 1/40th is added onto the rent, which is $250.

There are currently around one million rent stabilized apartments in New York, and Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced an ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years.

Many affordable housing advocates regard the repealing of vacancy decontrol as key to protecting the city's affordable housing stock.

But Goldstein believes the Chin/Williams amendment will have a deterring effect on abusive landlords, even though it doesn't get to the heart of the matter. "This law will be a helpful tool for many of our members who are regularly experiencing tenant harassment," she said.

Longtime tenant advocate John Fisher, however, believes the amendment, and the original 2008 bill, which was passed by then-city council speaker Christine Quinn, is actually detrimental.

"It's a joke, it's not going to change anything," said Fisher, pointing out that according to HPD's own testimony from April in support of the amendment, only 44 cases out of 3,206 brought against landlords resulted in those landlords being found guilty of tenant harassment and having to pay a fine.

An HPD spokesperson provided that testimony, which concluded that of the 3,206 cases brought against landlords between 2008 and 2013, 2,195 were discontinued, dismissed or withdrawn, 680 were settled, and, "only 44 cases have a disposition in [the HPD] database that indicates that there may be a finding by the judge about harassment."

"When you pass legislation that is weak, it maintains the illusion that tenants have the ability to gain redress in some meaningful way, and they don't," said Fisher, who has run an online repository for affordable housing information since 1994 called Tenants Net. "It actually does more damage. In a lot of ways I think this is snookering people. I think it's a disservice by the city council."

But Sam Spokony, a spokesperson for Chin, said the bill will put aggrieved tenants in a stronger position when the talk turns to a settlement. He pointed to the evolution of measures enacted at the city and state level to help tenants who face harassment, like the state's creation of the Tenant Protection Unit in 2012 and the amendment that was just passed in the city council, as a continued effort to bolster these protections to the point where tenants have considerable resources in their corner.

"This bill is about taking what we can do and taking a positive step forward to react to landlords," said Spokony.

Spokony said the Tenant Harassment Unit typically gets involved only when there's a discernable pattern of illegal harassment, and the public shaming aspect of Chin and Williams' amendment has the added potential of helping to identify that pattern.

"The legislation as it was passed isn't being presented as the end of the story here," said Spokony. "Everybody can make their own contribution based on what they're able to do."