HAMILTON HEIGHTS — City legislators are trying to protect small business owners from negligent landlords by crafting a bill that gives them similar protections as residential tenants.
The new law would amend the city code by adding protection against landlord harassment of non-residential tenants, according to the bill.
“As bad as things are for residents of NYC seeking to keep their apartments, at least there is a fairly robust system of protection,” said City Councilman Mark Levine, during a hearing on the bill Friday. “On the commercial side, it’s really the Wild West.”
Landlords can harass commercial tenants by denying services, like water and electricity, cutting off heat in the winter, doing unnecessary repair work during business hours, and demanding under-the-table payments to enter into lease negotiations, Levine added.
The bill would also give tenants a legal way of pressuring their landlords to do basic repairs, something that business owner Nick Velkov has struggled with since opening a yoga studio at 501 W. 145th St. in May 2014.
“We don’t see any clear course of action in the city that compels the landlord to fix the violations,” he said. “Elevator problems began three months into our lease, the heat was out six months into our lease, the electricity problems surfaced in April. There were also periods of time over the winter where our landlord turned off the water supply.”
The building has multiple violations with the Department of Buildings, including one for using unapproved and unsafe electrical equipment in May. They have not paid the $1,600 fine, records show.
All of the violations reflect poorly on the businesses in the building, Velkov said.
"It demonstrates a lack of professionalism in our part," he said. "In order to provide someone with a truly enjoyable experience in anything yoga, dining entertainment, they must be treated with respect and with professionalism. To invite them to a space that doesn’t have running water provided or doesn’t have heat in the winter shows a lack of respect to that person who took time out of their day to visit us."
The landlord was not immediately available to speak about the building's violations, an associate said.
The proposed bill would outline a dozen practices that would be considered harassment and make it easier for commercial tenants to take their landlord to court in order to repair the violations.
Those practices include refusing to negotiate with a tenant for a lease renewal, ordering unnecessary repairs that interfere with the tenants’ business, opening frivolous court proceedings against a tenant and interrupting services.
Tenants would be able to collect damages, one month’s rent or $1,000. They would also have the legal right to withhold their rent until violations are corrected, according to the bill, which is currently in committee.
Levine hopes this legislation is the beginning of stronger protections against small businesses, many of which have been forced out of Hamilton Heights in the last couple of years, he said.
“Frankly, until now there haven’t been strong enough sanctions against this kind of behavior,” he said.
“This bill seeks to provide some penalties with teeth so that tenants who are subjected to this type of harassment can resort to the court and win damages to compensate for lost business and to compensate for lost legal fees.”