The Certificate of No Harassment (CONH) Program has forced owners of certain properties to prove they have not harassed tenants before they can receive DOB permits.

425 Westchester Avenue

Adi Talwar

A construction project in the South Bronx.

The New York City Council voted Thursday to expand a three-year-old pilot program intended to curb displacement by denying construction permits to landlords with a history of tenant harassment.

The Certificate of No Harassment (CONH) Program has forced owners of certain properties, including distressed buildings and sites with a history of housing violations or vacate orders, to prove they have not harassed tenants before receiving a permit from the Department of Buildings for demolition or major kitchen, bathroom and unit renovations. A CONH pilot program that began in 2018 covered buildings in 11 community districts in Northern Manhattan, the East Bronx, Northern Brooklyn and the Rockaways, as well as community districts that overlap with neighborhood-level rezonings.

The new legislation extends those protections citywide, and guarantees a payment of at least $5,000 to tenants in buildings where a CONH application was denied, so long as those tenants seek relief through housing courts.

“In those cases where a landlord or a developer has the strategy of using harassment to vacate or nearly vacate a building in order to do a gut renovation or demolition, the tools we’ve had traditionally just aren’t powerful enough,” said Councilmember Brad Lander, the bill’s sponsor. “Luckily, it’s a relatively rare practice that an owner will harass for the full vacancy of a building, but it happens and this is a good strong tool.”

Construction itself has also been used as a form of harassment, with property owners starting disruptive renovations as a means to get tenants out of rent-regulated units.

Under the existing program, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) notifies tenants, local elected officials and community groups that a property owner has applied for certification to start construction work. HPD then conducts an investigation going back five years. If no instances of harassment are uncovered, the agency issues a CONH that allows the landlord to receive a permit from the Department Of Buildings.

If HPD identifies a “reasonable” history of harassment during the five-year lookback period, officials can commence a hearing before the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, allowing the property owners and tenants to make their case to a judge.

So far, HPD has received 55 applications, approving 27 for certification and denying seven, according to records tracked by the Coalition Against Tenant Harassment (CATHnyc), a collection of tenants rights groups that has pushed for the citywide expansion.

Property owners have withdrawn another 13 applications, and the rest are still pending. HPD and DOB did not immediately respond to questions about the denials, but Alex Fennell, senior political organizer with the Association of Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD) said their enforcement actions highlight the importance of the new citywide legislation.

Fennell and other members of CATHnyc say the pilot seems to have had an impact in the target areas by helping stem common forms of harassment, like late-night construction or heat and electricity cut-offs, that some property owners have deployed to drive residents out of their apartments and raise rents on the vacant units.

But CATHnyc, which is affiliated with ANHD, found that the pilot was relatively limited, covering just over 1,100 buildings with only the 55 applications.

Outside factors likely explain the low number of applications, CATHnyc found in a 2020 report on the pilot. Landmark tenant protections included in the 2019 Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, as well as a pause on renovations during the COVID pandemic, drove down construction.

The program also covered just a fraction of the five boroughs, fueling concerns about unchecked harassment and displacement elsewhere.

In addition to the expansion and potential tenant reimbursements, the new legislation adds a stipulation denying permits or rescinding them from property owners who begin construction work without first applying for CONH.

Similar CONH programs have existed in single-room occupancy dwellings (SROs) across the city and in buildings in Hell’s Kitchen since 1974. Supporters of the legislation point out that property owners do not have to seek a CONH to complete repairs for routine maintenance, to alleviate violations or to increase building safety and habitability.

Natalie Naculich, an organizer with the Manhattan group Housing Conservation Coordinators, said the CONH expansion will add another layer of protection for tenants.

“With a stronger program, tenants are more equipped to organize to improve their living conditions and hold landlords accountable,” Naculich said.