Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force

The Mayor, NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, NYS Homes & Community Renewal Commissioner (includes DHCR) Darryl Towns, and NYC  HPD Commissioner Vicki Bean announced the creation of a Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force, to go after landlords who use illegal means to displace tenants.   Their press release and press conference say:

City and State agencies will work together to
  • look for patterns, 
  • pro-actively go after landlords who are repeat offenders,
  • respond to 311 calls and calling in all relevant agencies to inspect jointly and share information,
  • investigate for criminal charges (not just housing court penalties),
  • impose steeper penalties. 
The goal:  Quicker, steeper penalties that will exceed the current "cost of doing business" - and thus discourage unscrupulous landlords from their nefarious deeds. 

Watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mCtfcRz17c

Click on "read more" below for a paraphrased recap of the press conference. 



The press conference was held at South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS).  Attorney Ed Josephson of SBLS:  There is huge harassment with big gentrification. 

Everything below is PARAPHRASED, not quoted. 

NYS Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman: The current market is the landlord-tenant equivalent of climate change.  It creates incentives for landlords to harass tenants out, namely vacancy increases and vacancy deregulation.  As the market booms, harassment is only going to grow. 

We're going after recidivist landlords.  
  • City agencies such as the Department of Buildings and HPD (Housing Preservation & Development) deal with most calls.  
  • Harassment & rent regulation are handled by state agencies.  
But this effort will coordinate city and state agencies working together to pressure abusive predatory landlord.  The Attorney General's office working with NYS HCR Commissioner Towns, will bring criminal charges when appropriate. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio:  The AG will bring criminal charges against landlords to stop tenants from being displaced.  The city's sheriff's department, all city agencies and state housing department will workworking together. 

Gentrification has occurred so quickly that we're still catching up with the impact. We haven't had the right conversation about what it means, positive and negative.

Today the govt is finally getting together, all levels of government, and getting it right to address the downside of gentrification.  We don't want ours to be an inclusive city that has worked for generations.

The numbers: In last decade+ : over 200,000 units left affordable status - Mitchell-Lamas, rent regulation. Some of that happened legally and some illegally.  What happened illegally should have been stopped.  Tools today will enforce that.  It's part of how we stem the tide.  We stop the ILLEGAL harassment and pushing out of law-abiding tenants.  

Complaints of harassment of tenants coming into our Housing Courts have risen enormously:
  • 752 complaints in 2014
  • 426 so far this year.

Most landlords follow the law, but a few do not, and they're in our cross-hairs.

All 5 boroughs are involved.  It will take a group, sustained effort to address it.

More and more, you see tenants organizing to stop harassment.  These efforts (government working together) help tenants organize, and give them more ability to follow through. 

New tenant harassment law increases penalty: $10,000 each instance.

What does it mean when someone's harassed? The family doesn't get heat, hot water, no repairs (fake repairs to even destroy apts), life is impossible.

Commissioner Darryl Towns (NYS Homes & Community Renewal) - here on behalf of the governor today. 

In 2011, NYS enacted the strongest protections in decades.

In 2012 - Tenant Protection Unit was created, and proactively investigates, determines whether to refer to AG for criminal prosecution.  It has so far restored more than 37,000 units to rent regulation, and has informed tenants of their rights.  One third of these are in Brooklyn. This has resulted in a net saving for the state of close to $2 billion that would otherwise be required to build or preserve that number of units.

This program means sharing data, resources, information, enforcement strategies, and a common vision; bringing administrative, civil and criminal actions against landlords. 

Tenant Organizer Donna Mossman, of the Crown Heights Tenant Union. Over last 2 years, the CHTU has witnessed predatory landlords pushing tenants out of their homes. Landlords profit from displacing tenants from their community.  CHTU was developed  with the help of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB).

This harassment routinely includes a lack of heat and hot water for tenants living next to and below apartments with no windows in their frames. Tenants have experienced this for 20 days and more during the winter.  Landlords tell the tenants not to call 311 - but CHTU urged tenants to call and they did.  The result was an HPD order requiring the landlord to buy a boiler placed outside the building to heat it.  Construction goes on 7 days a week and lasts for 6 months for one apartment; tenants can't even go to collect their mail because of the construction.  There is dust everywhere.  Workers are given masks, but tenants are told to put wet towels under their doors.  Mold forms because leaks are not repaired in timely manner. 

Predatory landlords must understand they are not housing cattle, they are housing people.

Organizing and working together works!

You guys are now honorary members of the CHTU.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams - This is an innovative approach to housing.
It insures adequate protection for tenants,  and their right to have a home is at the top of the Mayor's list. It's unacceptable that people are afraid they will not be able to keep a home in the city. 

Fast forward from the 1970's to today, where Bklyn is the epicenter of displacement of tenants. Landlords have participated in criminal action to displace tenants, and have been unindicted co-conspirators - but no longer.  

Displacement will end instantly once we start having perp walks of landlords who are displacing tenants.  This will send shock waves throughout community of slumlords who believe they got away with their actions again and again.

BBP Adams calls on all 5 district attorneys in NYC to join this initiative to ensure that criminal behavior that has taken place for years will be accounted for.  We allowed this because we were more concerned about predatory street corner crime than predatory building crime. 

Q&A: 

(1) How does task force change reality?  (We've had lists of bad landlords for years.)

AG Schneiderman: End lack of communication and coordination of agencies that should be working together.  Even good landlords and good contractors sometime come forward.

Mayor de Blasio: For too long, landlords treat penalties, housing violations as a cost of doing business.  So we increased penalties, will combine enforcement actions, support for Legal Aid so landlord is up against a tenant with a lawyer, supporting organizing efforts.   We are tightening the noose, making it tougher on the bad actors.  This will reach thousands of tenants, and change the rules of the game.  Deterrent effect.

HPD Commissioner Vicki Been: Change from past:  It was a cost of doing business.  Now HPD can issue violations and see patterns and combine that with the AG's enforcement power, that will make it so expensive and difficult for landlords to do this, that 's a game changer.

(2) What types of penalties?

AG Schneiderman: not just misdemeanors, but also felonies and jail time.  The devious creativity shown by some of these bad actors has led us to understand that there is a broad range of civil and criminal liability - harassment, assault, endangering someone's life.  We have a full set of laws.

(3) Have you been prosecuting some of these bad actors?  How have you approached them in the past? 

AG Schneiderman:  These are challenging, often we need undercover investigators, many tenants afraid to speak up.  We hope tenants will feel freer to speak up because of this task force.
Flow of information through all the offices will get better, and more people will cooperate.

NYS HCR Comm'r Towns: At the Tenant Protection Unit (TPU) we've brought landlords into settlement, which is part of this effort. Landlords who were harassing tenants agreed to settlements, paid a fine, allowed tenants to return to their apartments.  Together we can cover more territory, share more efforts and enforcement techniques.

(4) What's new here besides the collaboration?  Agencies already had the power to do these things?

AG Schneiderman:  President Adams drew analogy to effort to fight crime during the crime epidemic - with the all-levers approach.  You had to fix the street lights, take down barriers, call social services.  This is equivalent for tenants to prevent predatory landlords from throwing people out of their homes.

Mayor de Blasio  Speed element is crucial, not letting landlords run down the clock, delay court processes.  Agencies will push each other to move more quickly.  If someone thinks they will get court, they're less likely to violate the law.  But they will get caught.

(5) Can task force help market-rate tenants who lack protections of rent regulation?

AG Schneiderman: Yes.  Because market is going up so rapidly,  some landlords want even market tenants out before leases are up. So we'll help them.  Call 311.  Forced banks to put up $100,000,000 for legal services for those injured. 

(6) City Council has proposed right to counsel in housing court.  Is that feasible?

AG Schneiderman: Failure to fund legal services is anti-American and a disgrace.  Judge Lippmann talked about needing "civil Gideon" rights.  We're grappling with funding issues.

Mayor de Blasio: Thousands & thousands of cases: Tenants w/ legal representation would have kept their apartments. We're focusing on Legal Services component of this 

(7) How can tenants access what they need?

Mayor de Blasio: Call 311.  We want people to get legal representation, but call 311 to begin coordination effort of HPD, Buildings, Sheriff, state agencies. 

NYS HCR Comm'r Towns:  Office of Rent Administration for complaints.  Collaboration will be pro-active.  Sometimes tenants are being wronged and not aware of it.  We may be able to go to the tenant and not just wait to receive the complaint. 

HPD Commissioner Vicki Been:  Building on left found because HPD looked for suspicious patterns. We hadn't yet gotten a call.  It was our data analysis that caused us to see a pattern and send in inspectors.  Pro-active enforcement. 

AG Schneiderman: Instead of bunch of different agencies to send in inspections, we now have joint inspections, making it much speedier.  We have in our office gone after the Triborough Case, against owners who have systematically tried to get tenants out of their apartments.  Discrimination against immigrants, senior citizens, people who pay rent with government subsidy - we'll be able to bring those cases more effectively.  Level of conduct going on tempts unscrupulous into things they might not think of in a slower market. We can deal with it much more effectively together. 

HPD Comm'r Vicki Been: 311 calls will go to the City agency which will alert everyone else involved. 

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