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Tenant Advocate Could Lift Up Voice of Harassment Victims Under New Bill

By  Nicole Levy and Amy Zimmer | April 24, 2017 8:14am 

 A new bill would create an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the city's Department of Buildings. 
A new bill would create an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the city's Department of Buildings. 
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

NEW YORK CITY — Tenants would have their own representative within the city Department of Buildings to focus on harassment and safety under a new bill currently making its way through the City Council.

The proposed legislation, which would establish an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the agency, would "give residents a tool, another avenue to be able to have their point of view taken seriously at the Department of Buildings," said the bill's co-sponsor, Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who drafted the legislation.

”We get complaints all the time from tenants who have to live through construction while they’re living in the building,” she explained. “And we believe that building owners use construction as an opportunity to harass the rent-regulated tenants.”

 Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal.
Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

The tenant representative would address the concerns of renters who say their landlords are filing permits for renovation work and construction that is structurally sound but unnecessary, Rosenthal noted.

The official’s responsibilities would include: approving tenant protection and site-safety plans (documents that set rules to protect the health and wellbeing of residents and the structural security of their buildings); fielding all tenant comments, questions and complaints about them; keeping tenants informed of their rights; monitoring building sites to make sure they’re complying with the plans; and publishing quarterly reports about their work.

However, the DOB called the measure redundant and unnecessary, as the agency is already doing all of that work in-house.

Tenant harassment is “something we take quite seriously,” said DOB assistant commissioner of external affairs Patrick Wehle at a hearing of the Council's Buildings and Housing Committee last week. “I think by and large what’s envisioned through this office … is work that’s already performed today within the Buildings Department.”

A tenant advocate office would actually “create more distance between tenants and the information they seek, and capture work already performed by the department," DOB First Deputy Commissioner Thomas Fariello said at the committee meeting.

Agency experts already evaluate tenant protection and site-safety plans, and the department has existing channels for tenant feedback, including 311 and its external affairs division, he added.

Housing advocates such as Kerri White, of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, say those channels are insufficient. 

“The DOB is notoriously difficult to reach, and no one person understands the bigger picture,” said White, whose organization helps support tenants in low-income co-ops.

A tenant advocate office, she hoped, would act as a liaison with advocates and help the DOB understand how landlords — like those her nonprofit is fighting in Crown Heights — use construction to force out longtime tenants and upgrade existing units of rent-stabilized housing so they can command higher rents.

“The construction they do is really significant and has a huge impact on the surrounding units,” White explained. “When you replace 100-year-old systems in one apartment and not another, it can cause problems. Also, when work is done to intentionally get out other tenants, it can cause problems.”

At the committee meeting, Rosenthal described the case of a tenant whose landlord received multiple work permits to perform construction outside his window.

"When a building asks for repeated work permits to do work out of somebody’s window who happens to be a rent-regulated tenant in a building that’s undergoing a conversion and the work was completed the first time … really what’s going on there is: 'We need to have jackhammering out this window so perhaps the tenant will get the idea they should leave,'” the councilwoman said.

The Office of the Tenant Advocate "would give the Department of Buildings a public platform with which to counter the building owners that are doing things that might be structurally sound but are obviously constructionist harassment," Rosenthal told the committee.

"Why not have a voice inside the DOB? If you’re already doing the work, why not have a platform, an office that’s dedicated to doing this?”

Her proposed law complements a package of 12 bills opposing construction harassment tactics, said Mateja Lucic, a member of the Stand for Safety Coalition.

One introduced by fellow Upper West Side Councilman Mark Levine would require the DOB and landlords to make tenant-protection plans available before construction begins.

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