By Sabina Mollot
The City Council has introduced a package of 18 bills that take aim at landlords who use shady tactics to empty their buildings on lower-rent paying tenants.
To crack down on the practices, which include lying on permits and denying access to building inspectors, the legislation’s sponsors are hoping to hit back with denials of permits and doubling of fines for violating existing laws.
Keith Powers was one of the 12 council members who introduced a bill. His legislation would deny building permits to property owners for one year if they are caught lying about the number of occupied units in their buildings.
Powers told Town & Village the bills are intended to crack down on bad actors and improve coordination between oversight agencies. They were, in part, inspired by the revelation that the Kushner Companies failed to note the presence of rent-stabilized tenants in 17 buildings 42 times when filing applications with the Department of Buildings.
“We hope this will disincentivize (owners) from making false documentation on a construction application,” Powers said, adding that he expects to have a hearing later this month or in January.
Some of the other bills include:
Increasing fines paid by those who lie on forms submitted to the Department of Buildings, including doubling of fines for first offenses, and after that fines would be increased by a factor of two for each offense.
The sponsor of that bill, Helen Rosenthal, has also proposed that inspectors conduct a final inspection to see that violations have been fixed, instead of relying on landlords’ self-certification.
Rosenthal also wants contractors to prepare tenant protection plans ahead of construction.
Carlina Rivera is asking for a heightened review of these plans, in particular making sure specific steps are listed to correct problems.
Mark Levine has proposed that new tenants in rent-stabilized apartments be provided with the past four years’ rent history.
Richie Torres would require the DOB to keep reports on actions taken against owners, engineers and owners to falsify legal documents and even publish online the names of those who are subject to further review.
Diana Ayala would expose owners’ history of overcharging tenants in an online registry.
Robert Cornegy would issue a stop-work order at properties if access is denied to a DOB representative, and issue a notice to revoke the permit.
Cornegy would also make it mandatory for buyout offers to be disclosed and Levine would want any buyout agreements to be disclosed.
Fernando Cabrera would require that tenants be invited to DOB hearings where their complaints are being heard.
Additionally, Public Advocate Letitia James has proposed denying building applications where there are excessive violations.
The bills have already prompted some concern in the real estate industry.
“A number of [the bills] seem almost intended to turn what could be a ministerial error into a major problem for a developer,” Sherwin Belkin, a real estate lawyer at the firm Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman told a sister publication of Town & Village, Real Estate Weekly. “You check off the wrong box on a permit application by mistake and there can be personable liability and restrictions on future applications. It’s painting with a very wide brush.”
The industry attorney added that disclosures of buyout offers were unfair to owners looking to make legitimate agreements.
“You don’t have a law saying on Black Friday sales that Macy’s needs to put in writing that if you wait until after Christmas you can buy it for 20 percent cheaper,” Belkin said. “Lord & Taylor doesn’t have to say you don’t have to buy it here because Saks is going out of business and has better sales. It’s a continuation of the city finding the real estate industry to be a very easy target.”
Jane Meyer, deputy press secretary for the mayor, said City Hall is looking forward to reviewing the bills. Meyer added that the administration has already taken steps to combat predatory landlords, including the recent creation of a speculation watch list at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to identify where purchases of buildings may have put tenants at risk of harassment, and a new anti-harassment unit to pursue cases of “maintenance harassment.” Additionally, the DOB is hiring 70 more inspectors and support staffers, to investigate construction-as-harassment. The DOB is also establishing a Real Time Enforcement Unit to investigate work that may be getting done without permits.
“Since 2016, DOB and the city-state Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force have conducted more than 2,300 tenant-safety inspections and secured unprecedented penalties for bad-actor landlords, including jail time, but our work doesn’t stop there,” Meyer said. “With the City Council, we’re mandating stronger tenant-protection plans for construction in occupied buildings, providing universal access to legal services, and expanding our Certification of No Harassment program.”