Landlord-Tenant Battle Over Alleged Harassment Heats Up

By Thomas MacMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

A clash of apartment dwellers and landlords over alleged harassment is heating up as public officials roll out a raft of new city laws and impose steep penalties on property owners.

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State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Wednesday announced a $500,000 penalty for a landlord accused of harassing tenants, while City Council passed one of a dozen new city laws intended to protect renters from problem landlords.

Tenant advocates and housing lawyers hailed the two developments as progress in the battle against the practice of tenant harassment. Advocates say landlords routinely use disruptive construction and other tactics to push tenants out of rent-regulated apartments so they can increase the rent. Tenants' rights groups say big realty companies have been buying up rent-stabilized properties in recent years.

The city's largest landlord group, the Rent Stabilization Association, said the problem of tenant harassment is overblown and the new city laws might discourage landlords from improving their properties.

"The tenant movement just will not acknowledge that what is occurring now, if at all, are isolated cases," said Mitchell Posilkin, general counsel for the association.

Wednesday's settlement with Icon Realty Management, a large city landlord, was the first reached by the multiagency Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force since it was established two years ago.

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Mr. Schneiderman said Icon, which owns some 1,900 apartments in 110 buildings in New York, forced tenants to live with excessive dust and construction debris and shut off heat, hot water, cooking gas, and elevator service during renovations that went beyond approvals granted by the city.

A lawyer for Icon called the attorney general's announcement "political hype." The company did have some construction issues in a handful of buildings, but they were promptly addressed and not part of a harassment campaign, attorney Ken Fisher said.

Tenant advocates said large property developers, often backed by private investment, are buying up buildings with rent-regulated apartments, pressuring long-time tenants to leave, and then dramatically raising rents and reaping big returns.

Justin La Mort, a lawyer with Mobilization for Justice, which represents tenants who complain of harassment, said landlords try to push renters out with intimidation and relentless buyout offers, followed by invasive construction.

Yonatan Tadele, a housing organizer with the Cooper Square Committee, said Icon buildings in the Lower East Side saw much tenant turnover after the company took over.

"Then they would just gut the entire building around whatever tenants were left," he said, adding that the remaining residents had to deal with cracked and collapsing ceilings, broken stairs and dust.

The recent legislation passed by the city council, supported by an advocacy coalition called Stand For Tenant Safety, is intended to prevent construction as harassment. The package of 12 new laws includes increased penalties for building violations, closer scrutiny of building permit applications and better protections for tenants in buildings under renovation.

Mr. Posilkin, the Rent Stabilization Association attorney, said the new bills aren't necessary, since the city already had more than 14 laws intended to deter harassment. Such new legislation may have been useful in the 1980s, when misbehaving landlords were more common, Mr. Posilkin said, but the current problem is greatly exaggerated.

"If there was truly a problem, you would see more cases in housing court, " Mr. Posilkin said. "My two-word response would be: Prove it."

Ellen Davidson, a lawyer working on housing issues at the Legal Aid Society, said few tenants bother with housing court lawsuits, having learned that they require lots of time and effort and are rarely successful.

Ms. Davidson said the new laws are a good step but a change in laws covering rent increases is still needed. "As long as it is so lucrative for landlords to harass tenants out, the behavior is going to continue."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 28, 2017 18:42 ET (22:42 GMT)