Battle over tenant harassment bills

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  • Council Member Helen Rosenthal speaks at a February 23 rally against tenant harassment at City Hall. Photo: Office of Helen Rosenthal


Legislation faces opposition from real estate industry

By Michael Garofalo

A package of 14 bills currently under consideration in the City Council that advocates say will curb harassment of tenants by landlords is facing resistance from the real estate industry.

Supporters of the legislation — who include City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos and Dan Garodnick — say that the bills will improve tenants’ protections against predatory landlord tactics intended to force tenants out of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments, so that the units to be rented at higher rates. The bills encompass a broad array of proposals, which include increasing civil penalties for tenant harassment violations, expanding the definition of harassment to include “repeatedly contacting or visiting a tenant at unusual hours,” widening the scope of tenant protection plans that landlords are required to file prior to performing construction work, and establishing a tenant advocate’s office within the Department of Buildings to provide additional oversight of landlords’ adherence to tenant protection plans.

The measures face staunch opposition from the Real Estate Board of New York, which publicly opposes most of the bills. “REBNY recognizes the importance of protecting tenants from improper owner behavior designed to force vacancies,” the powerful industry association said in written testimony submitted for an April 19 hearing on the bills held by the council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings. “However, legislation to discourage and penalize such behavior must be narrowly tailored so that only the ‘bad actors’ are isolated and affected.”

One bill that would lessen tenants’ legal burden for proving harassment was met with a particularly harsh response from REBNY. Currently, tenants must show that a landlord committed one of a list of acts or omissions classified as harassment with the intent of causing the tenant to vacate their apartment. Intro. 1530, co-sponsored by Rosenthal, would create a “rebuttable presumption” removing the requirement that tenants must prove the landlord’s intent.

“It just flips where the presumption lies,” Rosenthal said of the bill. “It turns it so the tenant can say, no, the landlord has to prove that they’re not harassing me.”

REBNY warned that the bill would “turn the most basic American concept of justice — ‘innocent until proven guilty’ — on its head” and result in a flood of frivolous lawsuits against landlords. “All a tenant needs to do is to assert owner acts or omissions that could loosely make out a harassment case under the Housing Maintenance Code, no matter how tenuous the evidence may be,” REBNY said in its written testimony. “It will be the owner that will need to prove otherwise. New York City Housing Court, already backed-logged and under-resourced, will become mired in tenant harassment cases.”

Rosenthal, in a phone interview after the hearing, acknowledged that tenants initiate the majority of complaints, but said that the bill would help add balance to an unfair system. “I understand REBNY has to take the position they need to take, but there’s no question in my mind that this will help tilt the system a little bit on the side of tenants,” Rosenthal said. “Right now tenants are just completely disadvantaged.”

The lone bill in the package that REBNY supports is Intro. 938, which would require increased DOB oversight of contractors that have previously been issued violations for working without a permit. The DOB, for its part, expressed doubt that the bill would provide an adequate mechanism for identifying and targeting problem contractors. “Most work without a permit violations are issued long after the work is completed, and are typically issued to the building owner, for the simple reason that the contractor has long since departed the site,” the department said in its written testimony, noting that it currently uses other data to identify and monitor offending contractors.

The DOB also opposes the creation of a new tenant advocate’s office within the department, reasoning that such an office would be redundant. Thomas Fariello, first deputy commissioner with the DOB, testified that the department already performs many of the functions the office would be tasked with under the council’s proposal, such as reviewing and approving tenant protection plans, monitoring buildings with tenant protection plans, and fielding tenants’ complaints.

Rosenthal said that many constituents have expressed frustration with the DOB’s current handling of complaints and tenant protection plans, and that the bill is intended to improve the process. She added that she looks forward to continuing to work with both DOB and REBNY during the legislative process in pursuit of needed reforms for tenants.

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