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City Council Overwhelmingly Passes Tenant Harassment Bills Package

Council Member Helen Rosenthal Gets a “High-Five from a Constituent. Image credit: NYCC/William Alatriste

City Council passes a package of bills intended to strengthen protections for tenants subject to harassment by landlords. Since the mid-2000s and largely due to the housing bubble, predatory equity has become a metastasis on the New York City housing market. The expulsion of both rent stabilized and market-rate tenants is accomplished through means both legal, by abusing technical loopholes in State law, and illegal, by dangerous living conditions and intimidation.

According to a report from Stabilizing NYC, tactics used by landlords to eject rent stabilized tenants from their homes can vary widely by neighborhood. One common tactic is the buyout where landlords offer to pay tenants to move out of their rent stabilized apartments. This method, however, often allows landlords to use harassment and intimidation to force tenants to accept the buyouts. A newer tactic uses construction on the building to interfere with tenant’s lives making them uncomfortable or creating hazardous living conditions. These untenable conditions can be allowed to exist because of loopholes in the Department of Buildings’ inspection and violation processes. Additionally, State law permits a six percent per year raise in rent for building-wide improvements made by the landlord, and an additional increase for repairs to individual apartments which may lead to the immediate displacement of the tenant.

On August 9, 2017, the City Council overwhelmingly voted to approve several bills to respond to the trend of tenant harassment in the City by strengthening protections for tenants. Several of the bills redefine the legal parameters of tenant harassment. Intro No. 1548-2017, sponsored by Mark Levine, amends the legal definition of harassment by including repeatedly contacting or visiting a tenant at unusual hours. The bill does not define unusual hours. Intro No. 1549-2017, sponsored by Carlos Menchaca, allows a landlord’s conduct to be considered as “repeated” by a housing court even if the previous act was directed toward a different tenant. Intro No. 1530-2017, sponsored by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, creates a rebuttable presumption of harassment where an owner commits one of a list of harassing acts or omissions.

Some of the bills also change penalties for harassment. Intro No. 0347-2014, sponsored by Helen Rosenthal, amends the City’s administrative code to allow the housing court to award up to $1,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees and costs to a tenant when a landlord is found to have breaded the duty of an owner to refrain from harassing tenants. Intro No. 1556-2017, sponsored by Jumaane Williams, increases the civil penalties for violations of the administrative code for tenant harassment. Intro No. 0931-2015, sponsored by Ben Kallos, treats unpaid judgments rendered by the Environmental Control Board as tax liens on the property in question, which would potentially subject the building to the City’s tax-lien sale program.

Some of the bills were drafted to increase tenant awareness of harassment protections. Intro No. 0960-2015, sponsored by Rosie Mendez, creates a new notice requirement for multiple dwellings when the owner seeks a permit from the DOB to perform construction on the building. Intro No. 0936-2015, sponsored by Mark Levine, amends the information required to be included in tenant protection plans, which are generally required when construction work will take place in an occupied residential building. The bill would require that the means and methods of the plan to be describe with particularity; that the plan include information about the maintenance of essential services; that the DOB make the plan publicly available online; that the owner post a notice to tenants; that the DOB inspect the building within seven days of a complaint; and, that the DOB issue a stop work order if work is not being done in accordance with the plan. Intro No. 0938-2015, sponsored by Antonio Reynoso, requires the DOB to compile and maintain a watch list of contractors who have performed work without a required permit during the previous two years.

Finally, two bills create a review of the City’s response to the issue and a new advocacy office for tenants in the DOB. Intro No. 0926-2015, sponsored by Daniel Garodnick, creates an inter-agency task force consisting of representatives from DOB, HPD, DoHMH, DEP, City Council and the Mayor. The task force would evaluate the current practices of those agencies in regards to construction and renovation by landlords in occupied buildings.

Intro No. 1523-2017, sponsored by Helen Rosenthal, creates an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the DOB. “The Office of the Tenant Advocate represents an end to business as usual at the Department of Buildings,” said Council Member Rosenthal. The Tenant Advocate’s duties would include: approving all tenant protection plans; establishing a system to receive comments, questions and complaints regarding protection plans; establishing a system to communicate with tenants affected by work in occupied buildings; monitoring sits with plans to ensure compliance; and, publishing quarterly reports.

By:Jonathon Sizemore (Jonathon is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2016).