The Devil, Details, and DHCR

Rent-Law Rewrite a Gift for Landlords

Think the rent war in Albany is over? Most people do, because it's been three years since headlines screamed about the state Republicans' campaign to gut laws that keep 1.1 Million New York City apartments affordable. In June 1997, legislators extended rent regulation until 2003. But now, those very same laws are again under attack—more quietly, and therefore more dangerously, than three years ago.

The salvo this time comes not from upstate pols but from a dry and legalistic yet important process going on at the state agency that oversees rent laws. The Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) is revising the rent-stabilization code—right out the door, say advocates.

"DHCR is not only implementing the 1997 law in a way that is most favorable to landlords, it is also throwing in a kind of grab bag of landlord treats," says Ed Josephson, a Brooklyn Legal Services tenant attorney who has studied the proposed revisions. "It's like Christmas for landlords." DHCR, which is holding public hearings this week, did not return calls.

Indeed, while landlords failed to bury rent laws in 1997, they won remarkable consolation prizes, most notably a 20 percent rent hike for vacant stabilized apartments. Now DHCR's proposals go well beyond the prolandlord legislation passed in Albany. If adopted, they will touch tenants in myriad ways.

Some will be minor, like a provision to deny a rent reduction should a landlord discontinue fresh-cut flowers in the lobby. Others may be merely annoying, like shortening the lease-renewal time-frame minimums from the current 120 days to 90. But the most serious changes—like abandoning a rent-registration system now used to determine if tenants have been overcharged, and eliminating dozens of conditions that allow tenants a rent reduction—could mean rent hikes, decontrol, and deteriorated conditions.

The changes are detailed in bureaucratese, and even longtime tenant attorneys are calling DHCR's 150-page plan "an enormous document with no road map." That makes rallying tenants difficult. "A lot of this stuff is so technical, it doesn't appeal to the public," says Josephson. "People don't pour out into the street, but these changes can be very damaging."

Tenant advocates say that when DHCR drafted the plan, it relied on input from landlords but shunned tenants. While DHCR general counsel Marcia Hirsch did attend a 1998 meeting of housing advocates, it's not a far-fetched idea that she would lend her ears more readily to landlords, given that she, along with other DHCR officials, came to the agency after working as landlord lawyers. Indeed, the politics of Governor George Pataki are so in sync with those of landlords that the agency can reasonably be relied upon to write antitenant rules without explicit landlord lobbying.

Sources say the most damaging proposal concerns tenant complaints of rent overcharges. The 1997 law ditched all such complaints unless tenants made them within four years of the date they began paying allegedly illegal rent. Now DHCR relies on its own rent-registration system to determine the legal rent. But the agency is proposing to scrap that formula and instead use the amount the landlord charged four years before the complaint was filed—regardless of what the registered, legal rent was. In the case of an apartment that was vacant four years before a complaint is filed, sources say, landlords could essentially make up any rent they want.

"Gutting the rent-registration requirement rips a key building block out of the whole system," says Oda Friedheim, a tenant attorney at Legal Aid in Queens. "There are a zillion things that are wrong with this document, but this is the worst thing."

Also troubling are proposed changes for rent reductions, which DHCR used to allow if a landlord eliminated some services. The DHCR plan lists 31 conditions that no longer entitle tenants to a rent reduction, including failure to provide air-conditioning in public areas, a decrease in maintenance staff, and a loss of storage space unless provided for in a lease. It would also deny rent reductions for problems that existed for four years or more if the tenant did not complain about them during those years.

The process for rent reductions would also tilt toward landlords. Except in cases of emergencies, like lack of heat and hot water, there would be no surprise visits: DHCR would schedule an inspection with a landlord. Tenants would no longer be free to file complaints with DHCR unless they had first told their landlord in writing.

If tenants have won rent reductions for buildingwide problems, a landlord could hire an architect or engineer to certify that the problems have been repaired and that the rent should be restored. Tenants can counter those claims only by hiring their own professionals, or having 51 percent of the tenants sign affidavits stating that the repairs were not made.

Other goodies for landlords would include surcharges for washers, dryers, and dishwashers, if the landlord approves of their installation, and utilities the landlord provides. Landlords would get more leeway in making allegations that tenants should be evicted because of having a primary residence elsewhere. They could evict a tenant for "profiteering" if the tenant charges a roommate rent that exceeds the tenant's "proportionate share," which DHCR does not define.

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