City Council takes aim at bullying landlords

Council Member Helen Rosenthal has proposed opening an Office of tenant Advocate. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Last Wednesday, the City Council overwhelmingly passed a set of bills that’s been dubbed the Stand for Tenant Safety Act. The legislation aims to crack down on acts of harassment by unscrupulous landlords by increasing penalties and making it easier for tenants to prove they’re being harassed, including when the behavior comes in the form of construction. Other bills call for the creation of a task force as well as a new office to help tenants cut through red tape.

That bill, sponsored by Helen Rosenthal, would create an “Office of Tenant Advocate” within the Department of Buildings.

“While many at DOB do important work on behalf of tenants, the bureaucracy just isn’t in place to make tenants’ voices heard,” Rosenthal said. “This bill will change that, giving tenants a dedicated watchdog and workhorse on their behalf.”

The bill to create a task force is aimed at evaluating current practices used by city agencies with regards to renovation and construction at residential buildings. Dan Garodnick, who sponsored this bill, said the task force would then come up with ideas to improve communication between the agencies, including the DOB, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the mayor’s office.

“Construction harassment is a lesser known but deeply troubling form of harassment,” Garodnick said. “We are determined to deliver effective and consistent strategies to help combat this practice.”

Council Member Dan Garodnick wants to start a task force to analyze current practices around construction and renovation.

The City Council’s speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has also come up with a bill that would consider an act of harassment an attempt to get the tenant out of his or her apartment.

Another bill would award tenants damages or $1,000 in addition to attorneys’ fees and costs if they’ve proven in court they were harassed. The bill, sponsored by Rosenthal, would allow the court to issue punitive damages.

A bill sponsored by Mark Levine would expand the definition of harassment to include frequent, unannounced visits or attempts to contact a tenant either at unusual hours or in a manner “reasonably expected” to make a tenant intimidated unless the tenant has given written permission for those attempts at content.

A bill sponsored by Carlos Menchaca would consider it harassment if an owner causes repeated interruptions to essential services at a building or if the owner files frivolous lawsuits throughout the building.

Owners who don’t learn their lessons after being found to have harassed tenants would see penalties for such behavior raised under another bill. This one, sponsored by Jumaane Williams, would increase the penalty for violations of the tenant harassment statute to $2,000 from $1,000 and for owners who are repeat offenders within a five-year period, the minimum penalty would go up to $4,000 from $2,000.

Another bill, sponsored by Margaret Chin, would require the DOB to audit 25 percent of professionally certified applications for rent-regulated buildings, affordable housing projects or multiple dwellings which are the subject of a rent overcharge accusation and which are at least 25 percent occupied, on a monthly basis.

Under another bill, the DOB would have to provide a date when an owner must complete corrective work on a building when there’s also an order to vacate in order to fix the violations.

“It is no secret that some unscrupulous building owners have used vacate orders as a tool to evict tenants from their lawful apartments, said Rafael Espinal, the sponsor of the legislation.

Another bill targets contractors who’ve been found to have done work without required permits. The legislation, sponsored by Antonio Reynoso, would require the DOB to keep a watch list of contractors who’ve done work without a permit over the past two years. If a contractor is on the watch list, the DOB would have to increase oversight of their worksites and provide a timeline of when they could be removed from the list.

Firms found to be working without a permit would face steeper penalties as well as increased oversight under another bill sponsored by Rosenthal. It would also require the posting of information on the occupancy status of a building subject to a permit.

Also to be posted any time the owner seeks to do construction work that requires a permit would be a “Safe Construction Bill of Rights,” under legislation sponsored by Rosie Mendez.

For deadbeat owners who owe more than $25,000 in charges to the city, permits would be withheld under another bill. Its sponsor, James Vacca, said the city is currently owed almost $900 million in unpaid DOB fines.

Another bill would consider a building “distressed” if it’s subject to Environmental Control Board judgments as a result of building code violations in the amount of a lien to value ratio equal to or greater than 25 percent. This bill would also require the Department of Finance to report on tax lien activities as a result of ECB debt. The legislation was sponsored by Ben Kallos, who’s also sponsoring a bill that would allow the city to impose tax liens on buildings which contain 20 or more units and have amassed $60,000 or more in judgments or that contain 6-19 units and have amassed $30,000 or more in judgments.

Under another bill sponsored by Levine, tenant protection plans, which are generally required when construction begins, would have to include information about actions the DOB and owners would need to take to ensure compliance with the protection plan. The bill would also require the DOB to inspect sites to make sure the protection plans are being adhered to.

The set of legislation is supported overall by the mayor, a spokesman told us.

“We were proud to work with the Council on legislation to increase protections for tenants and will review the final package,” Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said.

However, the pending bills were blasted by a real estate attorney who said they demonize landlords.

Sherwin Belkin, partner at Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, also accused the city of “turning a blind eye” to tenants who violate the law by offering their apartments to others for short-term rentals, while fining landlords who do the same.

“These bills continue a troubling trend of the city demonizing the entire real estate industry due to the misdeeds of the few,” said Belkin.

“These bills impose numerous increased fines, restrict the right of property owners to communicate with their tenants, give questionable legal authority to the Housing Court to impose compensatory and punitive damages, and create a rebuttable presumption of wrongdoing against property owners for what may be completely benign acts; in other words, guilty until proven innocent.”

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