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With little public fanfare, the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal has substantially rewritten the state’s housing code, which sets the rules for more than 1 million rent regulated New York City tenants. The changes, which tenant advocates say weaken many crucial tenant protections and threaten to destroy affordable housing, will become law when they are published in the State Register on Wednesday.

Worst is the change that effectively destroys the requirement that landlords “register” legal rents with the state housing agency each year. That system protects tenants by providing a public record of legally permissible rents, a record that can be very helpful in a Housing Court rent dispute. Now, under the code changes, landlords will be able to refer to the “regulated rent” in court disputes, a figure that uses a baseline of the rent charged four years before.

Basically, the change makes it harder for tenants to prove they have been illegally overcharged. “Rather than make registration the basis of rent disputes,” said Legal Services attorney Dave Robinson, “the new code leaves it up to bargaining between the landlord and tenant. And we all know who has more power in that arrangement.”

Another new provision that worries activists is that “tenant harassment” of owners or landlords is now grounds for eviction. “That’s just scary,” said Dave Powell, an organizer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “What constitutes harassing a landlord? Calling them about repairs? Does taking a landlord to court constitute harassment?”

Lawyers for tenants say they will sue to block the implementation of certain pieces of the code. However, they admitted that some of the most egregious anti-tenant features of the new code will be hard to challenge in court, because they fall within DHCR’s discretionary power.

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