As some in real estate and government debate the necessity of the new Tenant Protection Act, the residents of Hollis Court have been more focused on the condition of their homes than continuing policy debates. They need a safe and healthy place to live, and they’re using the law to fight for it in court. Since the passing of the new Local Law No. 7 last March, a group of Hollis Court residents have become some of the first tenants in the city to invoke the Act’s protections against their landlords.
Hollis Court is a 54-unit apartment complex in Queens with many elderly residents using a Section 8 subsidy to pay the rent. In 2005 the property switched hands, and ever since Josef, Robert and Ilan Cohen purchased the complex, residents claim that services have deteriorated and problems have arisen. Complaints of mistreatment by the landlords include everything from utility service disruptions to intrusion and threatening phone calls, to lock-outs and roof cave-ins. They’ve filed numerous charges against the Cohens using various legal routes since 2005, but the law has provided them with a new tool to challenge the alleged abuses.
Landlord harassment is a growing trend at garden apartment complexes around Queens, according to April Newbauer, attorney-in-charge of Queens Civil Practice at the Legal Aid Society, who is representing the tenants of Hollis Court. Landlords appear to be interested in purchasing rent-regulated apartment buildings and converting them into single-family units in order to turn a profit. Hollis Court residents think that’s happening at their complex, because the Cohens have moved to change the zoning and infrastructure by dividing the parcel into multiple lots and constructing independent utility lines for each. This appears to signal a desire to sell the properties as individual townhouses, the culmination of a process that’s already resulted in some residents moving away. (City Limits reported on Hollis Court in issue #547, Aug. 7, 2006: They Will Not Be Moved: Ruling Shields Section 8's.)
There’s just one barrier to this kind of conversion: the current residents. Because rent-regulated units by definition prevent landlords from raising rents precipitously, some landlords have resorted to harassment to clear out current occupants (since vacant apartments’ rent status is easier to change). That’s what the new Tenant Protection Act aims to address.
Although laws targeting varying degrees of landlord negligence and abuse are already on the books, the Act is touted as “an umbrella of protection” against landlords trying to illegally evict their tenants. So, rather than fighting violations one by one, the new law targets “patterns” of violations that suggest harassment is taking place. That way tenants don’t have to spend time and energy taking a landlord to Housing Court for every abuse. It makes harassment a violation under the city’s Housing Code and can result in a civil penalty of $1,000 to $5,000.
“The landlord’s intent must be taken into account,” said Jonathan Westin, Lead Organizer at ACORN New York, who has been working with Hollis Court tenants since problems began. This law “gets at the root of the problem as to why the landlords do these things,” Westin said.
Still, some think the law is frivolous and risks cluttering the Housing Court with unsubstantiated cases while leaving landlords vulnerable to abuse by tenants. The Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), a lobbying group for more than 25,000 building owners and agents, contested the law in a suit against the city filed in August, claiming that it is redundant and unlawful. According to RSA general counsel Mitchell Posilkin, the law is outside of the city’s jurisdiction because it connects housing code violations with acts – harassment – not directly related to a building’s physical condition.
Further, the law has the potential to relegate legitimate cases to a lower priority by cluttering the courts, the RSA claims. It’s “totally unnecessary because of the laws already on the books,” according to Frank Ricci, a spokesman for the group. He cited 10 laws that allow tenants to fight service problems as well as cases of harassment. “There are laws on the books that have teeth in them,” Ricci said.
“We believe these [existing] laws are proper and provide a meaningful incentive,” especially because they can carry criminal penalties, said Posilkin. He says that the RSA fully supports laws that penalize tenant harassment, but the Tenant Protection Act in particular isn’t a good one: Tenants were sold a “bill of goods” that will not “meaningfully protect” them.
The RSA is also concerned that the law allows tenants to wrongfully bring their landlords to court, as with tenants who are late on rent and bring a false charge against their landlord in order to delay collection. While there are certainly instances of landlord harassment as described within the Tenant Protection Act, the vaguely worded law allows for abuse, Ricci said.
As it stands, landlord protections also already exist in the law. Landlords acquitted of three false harassment charges in under 10 years cannot be charged again without a judge’s approval. They may also be eligible for reimbursement of attorney fees if the charge is thrown out in court.
But the “egregious acts” committed by landlords make it necessary to have this law on the books, says City Council spokesman Andrew Doba. “This bill is designed to protect tenants, not clutter the courts.” In October, the City Council responded to the RSA lawsuit by denying the group’s allegations and reasserting the law’s validity. It remains to be seen how and when the suit will be decided, but the RSA says it intends to continue its legal challenge.
Residents at Hollis Court have one clear goal: to stop what they feel is abuse, pure and simple. At least one other group of tenants has brought charges using the new law in Bushwick. Since filing claims in August, the Cohens have appeared at only two of five court hearings and resisted all of the residents’ claims at that time, according to ACORN’s Westin. In the most recent hearing, the Cohens moved for the charges to be dropped. Months later, it’s unknown how long the legal process will take – as residents’ allegations of harassment continue.