Mayor & Council Seek Compromise on Tenant Protection Laws

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Brooklyn's Brad Lander says he and tenant advocates are now pushing a "streamlined" approach to a citywide requirement for certificates of no harassment.

William Alatriste for the New York City Council

City Councilmembers and the de Blasio administration are set to discuss a compromise version of a bill that would require property owners seeking building permits to first demonstrate that they had not harassed their tenants.

The proposed law, sponsored by Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander, was one of four tenant-protection bills discussed late last month at a hearing. Media accounts of the meeting suggested tenant advocates and the administration were at loggerheads. In fact, sources say, there is room for compromise on at least some of the measures.

The bill requiring so-called “certificates of no harassment” was authored by then-Councilmember Gale Brewer during an earlier Council session. When Brewer left the Council in 2014 to become Manhattan borough president, Lander became lead sponsor. It is coming up for action now, according to Lander, because of concerns tenant advocates have that Mayor de Blasio’s rezonings will increase the incentives for landlords to try to drive low-income tenants out of their buildings.

Under rent-stabilization, a landlord can boost the rent on a regulated apartment by up to 20 percent if it becomes vacant, and possibly by more if the owner undertakes an “individual apartment improvement.” With every hike, that apartment becomes less affordable to renters of modest means and edges toward $2,700 a month—the threshold for leaving rent-stabilization under vacancy decontrol.

Lander says he saw the process play out along Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue after a 2003 rezoning there. “When Fourth Avenue got rezoned, it became in the interests of some real-estate operators to buy those buildings, harass and displace the existing rent-stabilized tenants and then build a brand new building.”

Concerns about delays

Certificates of No Harassment have been required for decades when owners of Single-Room Occupancy buildings have applied for permits, and they also have been mandated as part of the rezonings of “special districts” in the city, like the West Chelsea District.

The Lander bill would expand the requirement citywide, mandating that the buildings commissioner not issue a permit for major alterations unless an owner signed an affidavit pledging not to harass his tenants, filed a tenant-protection plan to ensure that the alteration work didn’t harm residents, and produced a document from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development certifying that there had been no harassment of tenants over the previous three years.

The bill defines harassment to include “the use or threatened use of force” as well as “the interruption or discontinuance of essential services.”

“This legislation confronts head-on the ugly reality of gentrification in neighborhoods like Bushwick where real estate speculators can make a killing by buying up buildings and kicking out all the long-term tenants in favor of those who can pay double or triple the rent,” Ezra Kautz, a housing lawyer with Make the Road New York, testified at the Feb. 22 hearing. “Harassment is an unwritten part of the business plan.”

But HPD was less than enthusiastic in its assessment of the bill. Vito Mustaciuolo, Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Enforcement and Neighborhood Services, told the Council that the bill “Would be an overly broad, poorly targeted, after-the-fact approach to preventing harassment that will impose considerable costs upon all development.”

“It will therefore slow the production and rehabilitation of housing just when we have a pressing need for more housing to address the affordability crisis our families face and to prevent the rent increases that lead to displacement,” he added, noting that not all neighborhoods have large concentrations of the rent-stabilized tenants, or even of the multiple-unit buildings, to which the law is intended to apply.

Others have similar concerns. Frank Ricci, the head of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, says that applications for SRO certificates of no harassment can take two to three years to achieve—and there are only 200 or so SRO applications a year. The Lander bill, RSA says, would apply to thousands of apartments every year, and translate into steep delays.

Looking for red flags

Advocates for the bill, however, came armed with a compromise: A two-tier system where a certificate of no harassment is issued automatically unless a check of an HPD database reveals any red flags, like complaints of harassment, code violations, aggressive rent increases and housing court cases.

“If you weren’t in the database then you could sail through,” says Lander.

In cases where that database hints at problems, the landlord would face a hearing. If the concerns about harassment are found to be baseless, the permit would be issued. If, however, the harassment claims are substantiated, the landlord would have to either abandon the permit request or agree to a “cure” including providing permanently affordable housing at the site.

The hearing process, advocates indicate in documents submitted to the Council, could take up to six months.

It’s unclear whether the revised concept would address HPD’s concerns. “They said they’re open to some dialogue to address those issues,” Lander said of the de Blasio administration. “That conversation, I assume, will be taking place soon.”

One issue the system would have to deal with is how to handle landlords who are applying for a permit to fix the very conditions that have tenants complaining: If those complaints raised a red flag, it could prevent the owner from correcting the problem. “We absolutely want to make sure that even if they’re on the list, that a landlord who is applying for permits to fix conditions can get it quickly without a hearing. We’re going to find a way to make sure you can move expeditiously on applications to correct repairs.”

The RSA says that concerns about harassment are “overblown,” and to whatever extent the problem is real, the landlord group argues, the solution to it is not more laws. “There are already 10 or 12 laws on the books to protect tenants from harassment,” Ricci tells City Limits. RSA believes using the HPD violations database is problematic because, the group claims, old problems tend to linger there.

Tenant advocates agree that the city could better use the laws that already exist. But they believe that different measures are needed to address different features of a complex problem.

“Certainly more can be done with the existing tools,” says Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. “Harassment is a tough nut to crack. It looks different in different parts of the building stock. As we develop new tools, we realize loopholes still remain and we look for new ones.”

“It’s going to take a variety of tools,” she adds.

The certificates bill, Intro 152-A, is one of at least four bills now under consideration that would alter the balance of power among tenants, landlords, city officials and housing courts. Intro. 543, sponsored by Councilmember Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, would boost the power of city agencies and tenants to go after landlords for “underlying conditions,” like plumbing problems that persistently cause code violations. Councilman Ben Kallos of Manhattan is the lead sponsor for Intro 1015, which would create an online portal to track available affordable apartments. Public Advocate Letitia James introduced Intro. 1044 which would deny building permits to owners with more than two or three open housing or building code violations per unit.

HPD expressed reservations about all of the measures, but Lander says: “I didn’t on any of them hear them to say ‘We have unreconcilable differences.”

There is also a separate but related group of bills known as the “tenant safety package” awaiting Council action. Those proposals focus more on the impact of construction on tenants.