Mayor signs new laws protecting tenants

Mayor Bill de Blasio signs a series of bills into law at Broinquen Court in Mott Haven.

But local activists say it’s just a small first step

Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito were in Mott Haven on Sept. 3  to announce legislation to punish landlords who intimidate their tenants in order to force or buy them out of rent control apartments.

The mayor and the speaker said the problem has increased dramatically in the last two decades as rents have skyrocketed but wages have stagnated. They were joined by other city and elected officials at the Borinquen Courts senior center on 138th Street, to underscore that elderly New Yorkers are often the primary targets of landlords’ underhanded pressuring.

The three new bills the mayor signed into law would make it illegal for an owner to offer to buy a tenant out within 180 days after a tenant has explicitly refused a first offer; make it illegal for an owner to threaten a tenant, contact tenants at odd hours or provide tenants with false information when a buyout is being considered; and make it illegal for an owner to offer a buyout without informing tenants of their right to stay in their apartment and to seek an attorney’s advice.

“There are too many unscrupulous landlords using any tactic they can” including “knocking on doors late at night,” he said, pointing out that a new shadow industry of “relocation agents” to do the dirty work has emerged.

When landlords buy tenants out of rent control apartments, the mayor said, owners almost always get the upper hand.

“Those deals rarely work out in tenants’ favor,” he said, adding that landlords often target the elderly or disabled. A task force in the state attorney general’s office will enforce the new law, he said.

“Landlords must tell tenants their rights,” under the new law, said Mark-Viverito.

To help fight landlords’ illegal maneuvers, legal services for harassed tenants will be greatly increased, said the mayor. Vicki Been, commissioner of the city’s Housing Preservation and Development, said the number of tenant harassment claims has risen from 42 in 2008 to nearly 800 this year.

Wanda Salaman, executive director of Longwood-based grassroots community coalition Mothers on the Move, said it’s high time the city stepped in to protect tenants. At the neighborhood tenant meetings she has organized and moderated in recent years, she said, elderly renters are the ones who most commonly complain about being pressured out by aggressive landlords.

“This is what’s been going on for a long time,” said Salaman. “They’re [the landlords] not fixing the apartments, then they’re asking between $3,000 and $10,000,” to get scared tenants to leave. The problem became much worse in recent years when the city’s Dept. of Homeless Services began offering landlords generous sums to take in formerly homeless tenants and convert their residential buildings into shelters.

Another prominent local housing advocate said the new law is just a fraction of what’s needed in protecting embattled tenants.

“These are steps in the right direction,” said Jessica Clemente, executive director of housing advocacy nonprofit Nos Quedamos in Melrose. “But what’s needed is a real conversation about AMI (Average Median Income) which really gauges affordability.”

The local AMI is based on the city average, which includes wealthier areas like Manhattan and even Westchester County. Housing advocates argue it is unfair to base affordability in a low-income area like the South Bronx on income levels that include some of the wealthiest in the country.

“It’s a more complicated conversation,” added Clemente, “but it gets to the root of the problem.”

The new laws are slated to go into effect at the beginning of December. Until then, tenants suffering harassment by their landlords are urged to call 311 to report the abuse.