Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg made good on his campaign pledge to create an investigative unit tasked with cracking down on landlords who harass tenants, developers that cheat government subsidy programs and speculators who swipe deeds from small property owners.

Twitter/Councilmember Carmen De La Rosa

Bragg and other elected officials announcing the formation of the new unit at a press conference on Oct. 13.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg made good on a key campaign pledge Thursday when he unveiled a new investigative unit tasked with cracking down on landlords who harass tenants, developers that cheat government subsidy programs and speculators who swipe deeds from small property owners.

Bragg unveiled his Housing and Tenant Protection Unit 10 months into his first term after touting the need for Manhattan prosecutors to combat real estate crimes ahead of the November 2021 election. He has since scrubbed the details of his pledge from his campaign website, but an archived version of the site from October 2021 took aim at his predecessor, Cy Vance, for standing “idly by” and “failing to hold bad-acting landlords and predatory activities accountable for illegal or fraudulent behavior.”

The DA’s office, he said then, “does not even have a dedicated bureau for tenant protection” and “through at least 2019, no landlord had ever been convicted of tenant harassment.”

Bragg tapped five staffers to run the unit inside the Financial Frauds Bureau.

He has made clear that most of the work combating harassment and fraud is best performed on the civil side, through lawsuits and fines by city agencies, but many of the state and city-level housing units that are supposed to pursue those complaints are critically understaffed. Nonprofit groups and crusading attorneys have stepped in to fill some of the void, but say they can only address a sliver of the problem.

Bragg joined the program City Watch on WBAI 99.5 FM Sunday to discuss what type of housing activities demand criminal prosecution and where his unit will focus. City Watch is hosted by City Limits Deputy Editor David Brand.

“We’re talking about conduct involving multiple units,” Bragg said. “Persistent, systemic conduct.” He listed “lead violations across a number of apartment units” or landlords “harassing multiple tenants in connection with some sort of a rental subsidy program” as examples.

On his campaign website, Bragg said the proposed unit would “prioritize criminal enforcement for large landlords and corporate landlords” and focus on restitution, with incarceration “a last resort.”

Jail time is rare for landlords or speculators found guilty of breaking the law. Last month, a Flatbush landlord was sentenced to six months in jail after being found guilty of illegally subdividing an apartment and restricting access to a fire escape, forcing a tenant to jump from the burning building before dying as a result of the leap.

Bragg’s office already appears to be investigating at least one large property owner. After City Limits reported in May on severe mold blooms inside a Harlem woman’s apartment owned by notorious landlord Moshe Piller, the woman said an investigator from the Manhattan DA’s Office met with her, asked questions about the conditions and left his card. City Limits called the investigator, who declined to talk and referred questions to the Manhattan DA’s press office. A spokesperson declined to confirm or deny an investigation. Piller has also been sued by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and other city agencies.

Deed theft, a problem Bragg addressed during his time in the state attorney general’s office, also remains a persistent problem in New York City.

A recent investigation by The New York Times revealed the extent of the alleged deed theft that fueled one real estate magnate’s portfolio. Bragg has acknowledged the pervasiveness of the issue, along with ongoing harassment against tenants and abuse of government programs benefiting owners, including 421 tax abatements.

“We know this as a general matter even before the pandemic, the affordable housing issue in our city and in Manhattan in particular, so I think that this unit is going to be busy,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of work to be done.”

He said he will consider expanding the five-person unit as they begin to field complaints and pursue investigations.

As for one New York City property owner charged in the past with systemically discriminating against would-be renters, Bragg remains silent, declining to discuss his office’s ongoing investigation into former President Donald Trump. Former prosecutors in the Manhattan DA’s Office have criticized Bragg for so far opting not to indict Trump.

Bragg did, however, respond to criticisms from Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for New York governor, who has said he would fire Bragg if elected next month.

“We’re doing the work,” Bragg said. 

Listen to the full interview here: