Landmark legislation is helping tenants to end the harassment designed to get them out of their homes
CITY HALL – City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, together with Council Members Daniel R. Garodnick, Diana Reyna, Melissa Mark Viverito, Helen Sears and Alan Gerson, joined tenants from around the City who have exercised their right under the Tenant Protection Act (TPA) to confront unscrupulous landlords in housing court for harassment. The bill was signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg a year ago. The TPA has created a new umbrella of protection for lower-rent tenants who in many cases have been targeted for eviction by landlords looking to raise rents to market rates.
“A year after the Tenant Protection Act was signed into law, we are already seeing results,” said Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “Not every landlord is trying to push tenants out of their homes. But cases like these are happening all over our City, and we must ensure wronged tenants have the right to confront their harassers in court, to feel safe in their homes, and put an end to this reckless behavior.”
“Our commitment to helping the most vulnerable New York City residents was the reason we worked so hard to enact the Tenant Protection Act,” said Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. “Stories like these make one understand the importance of this bill. We must work to inform tenants across our City who find themselves in similar situations of the Tenant Protection Act so they can take advantage of this law and work towards putting an end to such terrible behavior.”
“Tenants today face enormous pressure from landlords, some of whom will stop at nothing to push rent stabilized residents out the door in the pursuit of profits,” said Council Member Daniel R. Garodnick. “In its first year on the books, the Tenant Protection Act has already proven itself to be a valuable tool for protecting New Yorkers from harassment and leveling the playing field between renters and landlords.”
HPD Commissioner Rafael Cestero said, “HPD worked very closely with the Speaker and her staff and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) on crafting this legislation to help protect tenants from illegal harassment. This is one of many instances where HPD has collaborated with the Council and with tenants and their representatives to ensure the preservation of the city’s affordable housing stock. The law’s early track record shows just how important these efforts were and we look forward to continuing such fruitful collaboration in the years to come.”
A COURT CASE IN QUEENS
In April of 2008, tenants filed a harassment suit against their landlord. The company, a private real estate corporation, has bought a number of rent-stabilized properties around the City. According to documents provided by representatives of the tenants, the landlord has actually asserted to the SEC that they can maintain a vacancy rate of 20 to 30%, a rate that is many times typical vacancy rates around the City. Once an apartment becomes vacant, its rent can be raised to market rates. Some of the allegations include baseless non-payment of rent lawsuits, not accepting checks due to minor differences between the name on the lease versus the name on the check (such as a middle initial), and false claims of non-residency.
“Before the new landlord, I lived peacefully in my building in Sunnyside,” said Alejandrina Zarate, a plaintiff in the case. “Then when the new landlord came, the problems started. I was sued multiple times by the company for no reason at all. After the Tenant Protection Act was passed, my neighbors and I brought a case against the landlord to stop the harassment and force the landlord to treat us with respect. Since starting the case, the landlord has not taken me to court again.”
“Finding housing in New York City is incredibly difficult, even under the best of circumstances,” said Council Member Helen Sears, “and for too long tenants have been subject to harassment by unscrupulous landlords who have tried to kick them out of their rightful homes to turn a dollar. The Tenant Protection Act has given these tenants legal recourse to address their grievances and critical protection that safeguards their rights.”
HARASSMENT IN CHINATOWN
Over 15 Chinatown tenants filed a harassment lawsuit against the landlord of both 55 and 61 Delancey St. The landlord has called the police to disrupt three tenant meetings; rejected rent and frivolously pursued legal eviction proceedings; and ordered tenants remove Chinese cultural symbols and decorations from public view. In addition, the company has neglected to fix dozen of violations, many of them serious.
“Both our current and previous landlords have tried to evict us and turn our homes into luxury apartments, using everything from frivolous eviction lawsuits to unsafe conditions. But the new landlord has escalated their tactics, calling the police to disrupt our meetings and demanding we take down our Chinese door signs, even though they allow Christmas decorations. This is harassment. Because we have this law on our side, we are able to ask the court to step in and put its foot down,” said Delancey Street tenant Zhi Qin Zheng.
“The harassment experienced by the tenants at 55 and 61 Delancey Street,” said Council Member Alan J. Gerson, “demonstrates the importance of this law and the need for an effective mechanism for redress.”
RESULTS IN BROOKLYN
Since April of 2007, residents of 64 Troutman had been the victims of threats, intimidation and the discontinuance of essential services, such as heat and hot water. Even worse, the landlord has allowed people working on his behalf to defecate in the cellar, stack garbage in the three vacant apartments in the building, including a bag of rotting dead cats, remove the stairwell and perform extensive demolition work without a proper permit.
As a result of the harassment charge and negative publicity, the landlord has fired his management company and agreed to correct outstanding violations.
“I am sixty one years old and disabled,” said Daisy Terry, a resident of the 64 Troutman. “I have lived in my rent‑stabilized apartment for twenty‑one years and I have no intention of moving. For a year‑and‑a half my landlord made my life miserable. They ripped up the three vacant apartments in the building, leaving behind dust and rubble. They removed the staircase and put a ladder up in its place. And the heat and hot water was turned off. Since filing a case under the Tenant Protection Act, we have seen noticeable and immediate improvements to our building, and the heat is back on.”
“The harassment that the tenants of 64 Troutman endured was deplorable. We passed this law to provide recourse for tenants who are suffering serious intimidation and abuse,” said Council Member Diana Reyna, who represents the Bushwick residents. “These are real crimes, not frivolous law suits. And the fact that these residents have seen results proves that this law is effective and necessary.”
“There has been a housing crisis in NYC far longer than the economic one that currently exists and tenants have been subject to harassment without adequate remedies for far too long,” said Public Housing Chair Rosie Mendez. “A year after the New York City Council passed the Tenant Protection Act, the uncertain economic climate makes it even more important to keep this sorely needed legislative relief on the books.”
ABOUT THE TENANT PROTECTION ACT
Since the bill was enacted, there have been approximately 350 claims filed – 33 were decided in the tenant’s favor and 113 were decided in the owner’s favor. There have been close to 90 rulings that have provided for a civil penalty.
Prior to the passage of the Tenant Protection Act, individual tenants were limited to taking their landlord to Housing Court only for violations relating to the physical condition of the apartment or failure to provide essential services. For instance, if a unit lacked hot water for a prolonged duration, a tenant could take their landlord to court and get their hot water turned back on. However, if turning off the hot water was just the latest episode in a long period of repeated violations, the only recourse for an individual tenant was to challenge the landlord on each and every violation or file a complaint with the state Division of Housing and Community Development.
Local Law No. 7 of 2008 created a violation for harassment in and of itself, providing a new layer of protection for renters in New York City. Some of the actions that qualify as harassment under this legislation include: using force or making threats against a lawful occupant, repeated or prolonged interruptions of essential services, using frivolous court proceedings to disrupt a tenant’s life or force an eviction, removing the possessions of a lawful tenant, removing doors or damaging locks to a unit, or any other acts designed to disturb a lawful occupant’s residence. The law also prevents similar actions by third parties working on the landlord’s behalf.
Civil penalties for judicial findings of harassment range from $1,000 to $5,000.
The bill responsibly balances protections for tenants with safeguards for landlords. If a landlord has three harassment allegations dismissed by judicial proceedings over a period of ten years, a tenant will then have to receive approval from a judge to file another harassment claim. Landlords may also qualify for a reimbursement of attorney’s fees if a claim is deemed to be frivolous.