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Tenant Harassment Bills Stir Controversy

December 6, 2007

By JAMES FERGUSSON

If you don’t pay your rent, sooner or later the city marshal will come a-knockin’. Increasingly, though, even model tenants – those who pay their rent on time and look after their apartment – are being harassed and forced out by unscrupulous landlords, say affordable housing advocates.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn wants to help. In October, she introduced Intro. 627, the Tenant Protection Act. The bill, if passed, would enable tenants to sue their landlords for harassment, a complaint not currently recognized in housing court. Guilty landlords would be hit with a C Violation (the most serious housing code violation) from Housing Preservation and Development and a $1,000 to $5,000 fine.

“This is landmark legislation,” said Jackie Del Valle of Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a Bronx-based tenant rights group.

The Tenant Protection Act is supported by the majority of the 51-member City Council. Still, not everyone is behind it. Bronx Council Member Maria Baez has sponsored a rival bill (Intro. 638) along with Majority Leader Joel Rivera, another Bronx politician, and five other Council members.

Baez Bill Attacked

Baez’s proposal also permits tenants to sue landlords for harassment. If guilty, the landlord would be fined $1,000 to $5,000, but they wouldn’t be slapped with a C violation. Most striking of all, landlords would also be able to sue tenants for harassment. If convicted, tenants would get the same fines.  Baez

“What Baez’s 638 pretends to be is even-handed, representing both tenants’ rights and landlord rights,” said Benjamin Dulchin, of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), an advocacy group. “But fining a tenant and a landlord the same amount isn’t [even-handed]. If a tenant’s hit with a $5,000 fine it’s a nuclear bomb.”

Dulchin added that Baez’s bill would make it difficult for tenants to prove they were being harassed, because the bill’s definition of tenant harassment was so narrow. Furthermore, he said, the bill’s definition of landlord harassment is so broad that a landlord could take a tenant to court for doing something as innocuous as making a complaint to 311. Dulchin was referring to a section of the bill that reads: “[Harassment is] making repeated baseless or frivolous complaints to any governmental agency relating to the ownership or management of the dwelling…”

About 20 protesters attended a Nov. 27 rally on the issue in front of Baez’s Mount Hope office, which Del Valle helped organize. Some waved placards that read “Landlords have enough power!” and “The Bronx is our home. Please stop tenant harassment.” 

As the protest wound down, a Baez staffer released a statement saying the Council member was still negotiating with Quinn. “We are having a healthy discussion and debate about both bills,” Baez said in the statement. Added Rivera in the same release, “We want to ensure the legislation is fair and balanced on both sides.”

“The fact that they’re saying it’s not a done deal is a victory,” said Del Valle after the protest. “We clearly sent her a message.”

Baez didn’t return several phone calls left with her office seeking further comment on her position. Rivera also did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Types of Harassment

In a hot housing market, CASA and ANHD say some landlords are trying to harass tenants out of their apartments so they can hike up rents (increases for vacancies, new leases, and repairs are allowed by law).

Landlords have several tactics at their disposal, says ANHD’s David Shuffler. They may refuse to make repairs to an apartment. Or, they might bombard tenants with petty legal cases. (As reported in the Norwood News, The Pinnacle Group was accused of this after buying scores of Bronx apartment buildings and bringing cases against hundreds of tenants.) Or they may use threats, based on immigration status. “You don’t want me to call INS, do you?” often gets thrown around, said Shuffler.

Advocates also say landlords are trying to evict rent payers in order to convert buildings into co-ops.

According to Del Valle, tenant harassment is particularly common in low-income areas like the west Bronx. “[Baez’s] district is very vulnerable because it’s one of the poorest in the city, with some of the worst housing conditions in the city,” she said. “She should be a leader on the Tenant Protection Act [not against it].”

Mary Silva, a CASA volunteer who lives at 1505 Grand Concourse, says she knows what it’s like to be targeted by an aggressive landlord. Last year, Silva, 72, started receiving letters and phone calls claiming she owed back rent. Then she was told she had three days to vacate the apartment. But in housing court, it was determined that the landlord owed her money, she said. 

Silva’s been in her building since 1971. She rents a two-bedroom for $633.65 a month. “These landlords, they probably figure, ‘If I can make people leave my building, I can fix up the apartment and rent it for $2,000 [the rent at which apartments cease to be rent regulated.’”

You can fight them, she added, but many people “get scared, they cry, they get sick, then they move out.”

The Landlords’ Position

CASA’s literature indicates that Baez’s bill was drafted by the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), a group that represents landlords. But Frank Ricci, an RSA spokesperson, said they had nothing to do with it. In fact, he said, they dislike both Quinn’s and Baez’s legislation.

“We don’t think either bill is needed,” Ricci said, adding that there are already numerous checks in place to stop tenant harassment, such as the 1982 Unlawful Eviction Law.

Ricci isn’t convinced that widespread tenant harassment is happening, either.  “It’s not something that, through this whole debate, has been substantiated,” he said.

Anti-harassment laws, he added, will “lead to a lot of frivolous complaints in housing court.”

In mid-December, both Intro 627 and Intro 638 will have public committee hearings, says Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Quinn. (Bills that pass in committee are sent to the full Council for a more thorough debate and final vote. If passed, the mayor can sign or veto them.)

Baez and Rivera, then, will get a chance to continue their “healthy discussion.” But Quinn has the majority of the Council behind her and may be unwilling to compromise. As her spokesman Doba said: “Speaker Quinn feels 627 strikes the right balance.”

Comments

One Response to “Tenant Harassment Bills Stir Controversy”

  1. Controversial Housing Bill Dead : Mount Hope Monitor on April 30th, 2008 9:53 pm

    [...] controversy surrounding Baez’s bill was covered in the December issue of the Mount Hope Monitor. There was also a story in the Village Voice, which suggested, among other [...]

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