Council bills take aim at tenant buyout offers

Council Member Dan Garodnick (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Council Member Dan Garodnick (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The City Council voted to pass a package of legislation meant to protect rent stabilized tenants from landlord harassment last Thursday. The three bills, one of which was sponsored by Council Member Dan Garodnick, are all specifically related to tenants’ rights when owners offer residents money to vacate their apartment, known as a “buyout.”

“We introduced this bill last year to deal with the specific problem of harassment by tenant relocation specialists,” Garodnick said. “There is nothing governing these interactions between tenants and owners. I think what these bills do is take unscrupulous acts by those who are looking to drive tenants out of their apartments and call them what they are, simply harassments. We are defining the rules of engagement, of how tenants can be approached in this context.”

The bill sponsored by Garodnick would amend the Housing Maintenance Code’s definition of harassment to make it unlawful for a landlord, in connection with a buyout offer, to threaten, intimidate or use profane or obscene language, contact tenants at odd hours or with such a frequency that the behavior would be considered abusive, to contact tenants at their place of employment without prior written consent and to knowingly falsify or misrepresent information provided to the tenant.

The two additional bills were sponsored by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams.

The bill sponsored by the Council Speaker would also amend the Housing Maintenance Code’s definition of harassment, to make it unlawful for a landlord to contact a tenant about a buyout offer within 180 days after the tenant has already notified the owner or their agent, usually known as tenant relocation specialists, that the tenant does not want to be communicated with about buyouts. The owner is only allowed to communicate with the tenant about buyout offers during the 180 day period if the communication is authorized by the court or the owner is notified in writing that the tenant is interested in such communications.

The aim of the bill sponsored by Williams is to make sure that tenants are aware of their rights in connection with buyout offers, by making is unlawful for a tenant to be contacted regarding a buyout offer without being notified of specific details in writing beforehand, including the purpose for the contact. The bill stipulates that contact concerning the buyout offer must be made by the owner or on behalf of the owner. It also specifies that tenants are made aware of their right to refuse any buyout offers and allows them to continue occupying their apartment, and allows tenants to seek the guidance of an attorney regarding any offer that is made.

Garodnick first became involved in legislation concerning tenant harassment in 2008 when he introduced and passed legislation that gave tenants the right to sue a landlord for harassment, and he said on Thursday that the goal of the bills that were recently passed is to make sure there are specific guidelines to keep tenant relocation specialists in check.

“People with a specialty in relocating tenants need to abide by a specific code of conduct, and that can’t include harassment,” Garodnick said. “We are taking steps today to tighten the rules, and to ensure fairness for tenants.”

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