By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
When the state office that handles complaints of landlord harassment announced a plan last month to move from downtown Manhattan to eastern Queens, employees argued the relocation would mean a schlepp for themselves and a disservice for the tenants they serve, most of whom come from Brooklyn and Manhattan. But a closer look at the problems plaguing
the enforcement unit of the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) shows that shuttling the office to Queens is just one more way for governor George Pataki's administration, which is already brushing off tenants in unprecedented numbers, to further neglect renters.
Since the GOP governor took office in January 1995, two of every three harassment complaints have been rejected, a sharp hike from the early 1990s, when only one in three met such a fate, according to data provided by enforcement unit (EU) staffers. Accompanying this rise is a plummet in the number of EU attorneys who prosecute landlords for harassment, down from 15 several years ago to five today. And while the number of complaints filed by tenants has dipped one insider blames tenants' "despair" of getting any help from the agency it is far outpaced by the drop in staff.
"Since the Republicans have been in office, the landlords think they walk on water," says one veteran agency worker. "There's so many limits on tenants and what kind of cases we should open, it deters them from filing any complaint at all. The message is, 'Don't bother. We're going to make it impossible for you.' "
EU staffers say that months after Pataki took office they were directed to open cases only if the problems were "very, very serious" or numerous. "We used to resolve more complaints, sometimes even without going to a formal hearing," says one worker. "Just by opening a case you might get a landlord to turn around. We don't do that much now." Sources say about 30 complaints are made each week. Under Pataki, the once full-time EU director's post has become part-time.
DHCR's press officer Donna Ackerman did not respond to repeated calls and written requests to confirm data on the numbers of complaints filed, cases opened, and staff lost. But EU workers say the faltering numbers reflect a slump in the state's commitment to tenants. "Since Pataki came in, there has been a gradual erosion of staff," says Ralph Carbone, president of the union local that represents DHCR workers and an attorney at the EU. "When you have only five attorneys and 1.2 million rent-regulated apartments, just do the math. We can deal only with the worst cases." Says another EU source, "More cases with merit now slip through the cracks."
Current complaints serious enough to warrant a hearing include one about a Brooklyn landlord who blasted the heat in his Crown Heights apartments during the summer, raising temperatures to 110 degrees, while freezing tenants in the winter; and a case against the infamous Chelsea slumlord team of Robert Sigmund and Thomas Iveli, charged by the EU with an array of offenses including physical and verbal abuse of tenants, allowing drug and prostitution rings in their buildings, and "permitting . . . an environment of fear, lawlessness, and disorder." In 1997, the landlords generally denied the charges; the case is pending.
The EU is essential because tenants cannot bring civil harassment charges against a landlord themselves; they must go to the EU, which prosecutes charges of harassment in civil hearings before administrative law judges (ALJs).
DHCR's demise under Pataki is not surprising, considering that a pre-inaugural task force insisted that the rent laws DHCR enforces be dismantled. The landlord-backed governor showed his duplicity in 1997 when he orchestrated a rent-law revision that gave owners huge incentive to drive out rent-regulated tenants, then tried to temper the lure by enacting the "toughest" antiharassment laws in the country. Some of those laws were left to his decimated EU to enforce. "You can have the toughest laws in the country," says Carbone, "but if you don't have a staff to implement them, they become meaningless."
Pataki's incentives pair up with the city's frenetic real estate economy to make tenant protections crucial. "Harassment occurs where profits are greatest, and right now, that means all of Manhattan and much of the city," says Carbone. "If you have a building and you can get rid of a few tenants and knock it down, you can make a tremendous amount of money."
In a September 9 memo about DHCR's plan to relocate the EU from 25 Beaver Street in lower Manhattan to a state office building in Gertz Plaza in Queens early next year, workers were told that refusing to transfer "might result in your separation from state service." That, of course, made the 21- member EU staff nervous and got the union local involved. Currently, DHCR plans to keep EU hearings in Manhattan. But conferences, in which the EU investigates and tries to resolve harassment charges before going to a full hearing, are likely to be held at Gertz Plaza, which is about a half-mile from the last stop on the E subway. EU staff would be stationed at Gertz, which Carbone says would mean time wasted in travel. And the shuttling of documents, which in cases like the Sigmund and Iveli prosecution amount to tomes, could jeopardize evidence.
(Indeed, this spring, DHCR relocated the ALJs who preside over harassment hearings from Gertz to Beaver Street, where their proceedings are held, after an internal audit concluded that traveling between Gertz and Manhattan cut productivity.)
Despite staff concerns, DHCR general counsel and former landlord attorney Marcia Hirsch boasted to the city's Rent Guidelines Board that she was "pleased to report much progress" in slashing tens of thousands of all sorts of complaints agency-wide.
"There's fewer cases because they accept fewer cases," argues the veteran EU worker. "They accomplish that by denying tenants a lot." Says a colleague, "We are here to enforce the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. Yet everything now is geared to make it harder for tenants."