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City Council Creates Tenants' Rights Watchdog As Part of Raft of Reforms

By Jackson Chen | August 10, 2017 3:23pm
 The City Council voted to pass 18 bills Wednesday that better protect tenants from abusive landlords.
The City Council voted to pass 18 bills Wednesday that better protect tenants from abusive landlords.
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CITY HALL — The City Council voted on Wednesday to pass sweeping reforms to tenant protections in the face of abusive landlords and developers.

A total of 18 bills were passed as part of the “Stand for Tenant Safety” package. The bills range from increased fines for landlords, requiring a "Safe Construction Bill of Rights," stricter preventative measures to address construction as harassment, and the creation of an Office of the Tenant Advocate inside the Department of Buildings.

The tenant advocate would act as the city's point of contact for any tenant facing harassment.

“We task the DOB with an extremely difficult job — it has to keep the city building and keep our buildings structurally sound. On top of that it has to look out for the wellbeing of tenants,” Upper West Side Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal said. “But it so often feels that tenant concerns are lost in the shuffle. The bureaucracy is easy for a bad actor landlord to manipulate, but it’s very difficult for a tenant to navigate.”

According to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the DOB should be able to create the office with existing resources.

Organizations like the Goddard Riverside Law Project are currently tasked with mediating between tenants and landlords and even stepping in to represent residents in court at times. According to Dan Evans, Goddard Riverside’s tenant organizer, their office receives complaints about construction harassment almost weekly.

“The landlord will come in and do extensive renovations at all hours of the day with or without permits,” Evans said. “That has a serious effect on the quality life of the remaining rent stabilized tenants.”

Peter Randall, a resident of West 94th Street, said his apartment is often left in worse condition after workers make repairs to his apartment. He's even had to take his landlord to court for harassment after people starting banging on his door repeatedly for the early morning visits.

“It’s a constant effort to try and pressure people to move out,” Randall said of the harassment. “They do what I would call ‘retaliatory repairs’ where it ends up being worse than what it was and has to be redone and they don’t come back.”

Rosenthal's neighboring Councilman Mark Levine, who is co-sponsor of two bills passed on Wednesday, said oftentimes landlords have used construction as a means of driving tenants out of their homes.

“This had to be done because we are in an arms race with unscrupulous landlords who will stop at nothing,” Levine said. “As we have made progress in strengthening our housing laws, they have moved to ever more dangerous arenas of attack on vulnerable tenants and are now using construction as a weapon.”

Landlords who plan construction on a building while it is occupied are currently required to create a Tenant Protection Plan outlining the kind of work being done.

One of the pieces of legislation sponsored by Levine will require landlords spell out any work that removes mold, asbestos, or lead or that would affect hot water, gas, and electricity in the TPPs. The bill also requires the DOB to post the plans on their website and force landlords to post copies of them around the building.

Another law will broaden the definition of "tenant harassment" to include repeatedly bothering residents before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m., to prevent persistent harassment and buyout offers at inconvenient hours of the day.

Another law passed as part of the package doubles penalties for landlords who allow construction work without a permit or with a falsified permit claiming the building is unoccupied.

The bill also forces the DOB to give written notice to the borough president, the district’s councilmember, and the community board whenever an entity that has been cited for construction without a permit attempts to resume construction.

Another law will allow Housing Court judges to award damages to tenants who win harassment cases against their landlord. 

The mayor has one month to act on the package of bills and has not yet set a date for his signature.