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The byzantine complex of rules that govern a good portion of the city’s stock of tax-foreclosed, city-owned buildings is about to change–and possibly cut into tenants’ legal rights that protect them from being arbitrarily displaced or evicted.

Alarmed tenants, housing lawyers and City Councilmembers slogged through the rain to a housing agency hearing Tuesday morning to express dismay at the proposed changes, which will affect all the tenants who live in city-owned buildings overseen by the housing department’s Division of Alternative Management Programs.

The rule change will give the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development much more leeway in decisions about setting rents, subletting and temporary relocations, and potentially make it harder for tenants to fight those decisions in court.

The biggest–and, for tenants, the most disturbing–rule change gives HPD and its rehabbers much more discretion in shifting tenants to distant neighborhoods while their apartments are being renovated, a process that could take as long as two years. Up to now, the city was only allowed to move tenants within their own neighborhood. Even these local moves are notoriously fractious and traumatic, especially since the temporary housing may be shabbier or smaller. Older tenants and families with small children are particularly unwilling to make these moves.

“Personally, [relocation] scares me,” said Blanca Cap, president of the tenants’ association at 507 East 11th St. “What do I do with my 9-year-old daughter? Send her to school on the subway herself?”

HPD refused to answer questions regarding the proposed rules changes.

Tenant advocates speculated that the housing agency was relaxing the relocaiton requirement because they want more flexibility–and because they’re running out of vacant apartments to move people into as the stock of city-owned housing dwindles. “From a management perspective, it’s something that they need to do,” said attorney Dave Robinson of Legal Services, who noticed the rule changes in the City Record. “From a tenant perspective, it’s very dangerous, because you’re taking away your longtime community residents.”

“The rules themselves give an incredible amount of power to move people, and can change the demographics of a neighborhood,” added Ken Rosenfeld of the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, a housing advocacy group.

Last year, NMIC represented 14 tenants who were caught in a nasty fight over relocation with one of the groups that rehabs housing for HPD, Quisqueya Housing Corp. The developers wanted to put the tenants into temporary apartments, but the tenants balked. “They were showing them disaster apartments–some of them were in horrible shape,” recalled Rosenfeld. “And they didn’t want to give them a guarantee that they could move back into the same apartments.” Quisqueya tried to evict the residents, but the case was eventually thrown out of court. Rosenfeld worries that the new, looser rules will make it harder for tenants to fight these kinds of evictions.

Councilwoman Margarita Lopez will hold a press conference about the proposed rules on Wednesday at noon on the steps of City Hall.

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