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March 18th, 2008

THE WILD WILD WEST OF HOUSING

by Joelle Panisch

A Series of Articles on the Lawlessness of Tenant/Landlord Disputes in New York City and the Departments That Are Allowing its Occurrence.

New York, Dec. 2007–Over the past three decades New York crime rates have been vastly reduced, and the streets cleaned up. But now there is a new “dirty” affecting the city’s inhabitants, and this one is not just close to home; it is the home. For a long time, the rising real estate values have taken a toll on middle class New Yorkers. It has displaced them, made the city unaffordable, and lessened their quality of life. And though it is very sad that the backbone of the population is the community most negatively affected, thus is often the consequence of uncontrolled capitalism.

However, rent control and rent stabilization laws were enacted to establish and protect the rights of tenants, and to ensure affordable housing in areas throughout New York. This is now in jeopardy. Landlords have been hypnotized by greed, and have realized the incredible profits they would be making if they could regain control of these apartments to then rent them at current market value. With the housing shortage and the insane market, for many of the large landlord organizations, the gains would be in the millions.

So, with dollar signs in their eyes, the harassment of tenants takes flight. In an email one tenant wrote,”I myself have been in court countless times since the new landlord took over my building last March. They sparked a rent strike within a month of the takeover and then took us all to court. This is a building where I’ve lived for almost 15 years and the last eight months have been hellish, to say the least, including three months where gas was entirely cut off, weeks with no hot water, a lot of cold days with no heat, and new construction in vacated apartments that among other things pushed mice and large roaches into my formerly vermin-free dwelling. There are 20 units in my building, and since April some 15 of those have been vacated.” The tenant asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

This simple denial of necessary services like heat or hot water is the most common intimidation tactic.

There are others as well, such as the refusal to make necessary repairs. In 2005, after dozens of complaints about the elevators, one finally fell to the basement floor of 80 Varick Street, a building where about 40% of the tenants were rent stabilized. Thankfully no one was inside it. More aggressive maneuvers such as physical damage to a person’s home and self are often reported. There are numerous accounts of intercoms being damaged, locks “accidentally” changed, and boilers suddenly breaking.

Just as frightening are physical threats. Some are made by the landlord or associates of the landlord, but others are produced through manipulative lies the owners will tell one tenant to pin him against another. Tenant A is told the reason he must move out is due to comments Tenant B has made. Confrontations ensue.

Litigation is another very powerful tactic. Landlords draw up evictions suits with minute cause to force tenants into court. This creates tremendous emotional and financial stress on the tenant. Now on top of the normal high cost of living, these often middle class residents now must pay thousands of dollars in legal fees. These suits are often bogus and brought on with the expectation that it will force tenants into accepting minimal settlements to vacate their apartments. Many do. Renters understand these proprietors have deep pockets that can outlast the average person in legal fees, and have no moral code to prevent them from abusing the judiciary system for their financial gain.

Perhaps the most offensive eviction method is the abuse of housing codes. These allow owners to evict quickly, and instead of having to prove cause due to unlawful actions by the tenants they can just claim that the buildings are unsound. Among those used are the owner-occupancy clause used to evict an entire building for the owner’s personal use, declaring occupied housing as a construction site, and the “phony demolition” loophole. This is paramount to ‘landlord scams’ and apparently it is legal.

Certainly not every landlord is rapacious enough to deny occupants heat. However, the ones who are have become so successful that they have figured out how to refine their tactics. According to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, in 2005 9,272 rent-stabilized units were lost, a 50 percent increase over 2002. With each eviction these proprietors have more artillery to expel the next tenant, eventually becoming large enough to steam roll buildings. It is a stabilization holocaust.

One of the core problems is the fragmentation of tenants throughout the city. Many are afraid to unite for fear that they too will be displaced. Without a strong enough army to back them they are limited in what they can do. There are currently an estimated 50,000 rent stabilized tenants left in New York. Without a united front they are reduced to individual units that are exponentially more susceptible to abuse. Landlords are using the ‘divide and conquer’ tactic and it works.

And with the wealth developers have acquired, it appears they have gained power as well. There has been a distinctive shift in the fiber of the law, which once was intended to protect residents.

Tenant supporter and District 66 Assemblymember Deborah Glick agrees, saying, “[In many cases} it violates the spirit if not the letter of the law.”

Though a certain degree of politics is always present, it’s hard to believe that the housing courts have shifted so drastically.

One can only wonder exactly how rampant corruption has become. It is certain that the temptation is out there but exactly how many judges bit is the question.

Lack of effective legislation under the current administration seems suspicious as well. Is it because a majority of politicians own their own apartments? Is it mere indifference? Or are there financial benefits for politicians who look the other way?

Last year Bloomberg expanded his affordable housing legislation that as of now has been widely seen as ineffective. And since the Bloomberg administration there have been sizeable cutbacks in the department most needed for lawfulness. The Department of Buildings is responsible for “safe and lawful use” of the properties throughout the city through the enforcement of established building codes. However, the DOP and Commissioner Patricia Lancaster has a very questionable reputation, widely criticized for favoring developers and landlords.

There are some positive changes. There are a number of organizations set to crusade against the housing crisis. Among them are the Good Old East Siders (GOLE), the New York City Tenants Alliance, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (for Chinatown), the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, and the Coalition to Save the East Village, and Housing First. These groups offer recourses and counseling to tenants fearing displacement. However these groups too are fragmented and lacking support from one another. Each neighborhood is grasping at straws to save itself, many willing to sacrifice another. The Bowery, for instance, is so desperate to stop the rezoning and the erection of luxury high rises and hotels that it would gladly pass it off to another district. A citywide alliance is necessary.

There also is hopeful legislation in the works. Democrats Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed a bill that would prohibit tenant harassment.

Up until now tenants were able to take landlords to court for specific instances but not for a pattern, which made it nearly impossible to prove that these occurrences were in fact retaliation and not just random events. According to a City Council press release, some of the actions that would be considered violations are “using force or making threats against a lawful occupant, repeated or prolonged interruptions of essential services, using frivolous court proceedings to disrupt a tenant’s life or force an eviction, removing the possessions of a lawful tenant, removing doors or damaging locks to a unit, or any other acts designed to disturb a lawful occupant’s residence.”

Under the bill landlords would face fines of $1,000 to $5,000 per unit.

“Tenant harassment can come in many forms, and once we pass this legislation, we’ll have the legal framework to cover them all. This law will ensure no tenant is powerless when faced with an unscrupulous slumlord intent on getting them out of their home. With this bill, we give tenants a direct line to confront their harasser,” said Speaker Quinn in a statement.

Even if it does pass many are skeptical about its effectiveness due to the inherent hardships in proving retaliation and the current climate in the housing courts. Still, this would be a much needed triumph for renters throughout New York City.

As of now the future of housing looks grim. If this weed continues to grow the ramifications won’t just affect rent stabilized and rent controlled tenants, it will affect market value renters as well. In essence, the market renters’ lackadaisical attitude will forfeit their future rights. Imagine being afraid to complain that your heat hasn’t been turned on in December, because you are fearful that come August when your lease is up your rent will be tripled. Well, that’s the new New York tenants have to look forward to.

And its not just renters, or housing in New York that’s at risk but the culture as a whole. Do we really want New York to be strictly an emerald city for the wealthy? By allowing the displacement of New Yorkers that have consistantly been the foundation of creating–and recreating– the megalopolis that is New York, we risk losing it.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick said it best. “(We are) losing diversity, becoming homogenized, and giving up New York to second home buyers…it is undermining the fabric of New York.”

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