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For nearly 10 years, Carl Goodman endured cascading leaks, cold winters, and generally shabby conditions in his tiny one-bedroom West Village apartment. When his longtime landlord sold the building in May, Goodman was looking forward to a new, more responsible owner. So he was nothing less than shocked to learn that he was facing eviction. More stunning is the fact that his new landlord may prevail.
"I never, ever thought I could lose my apartment this way," says Goodman, a 44-year-old marketing consultant. "I thought rent stabilization protected you unless you did something wrong. This has been like a cold shower."
"[I]f tenants say they're scared in an owner's use case, well, they should be. It's the only time you can legitimately get kicked out without doing something wrong."
The dousing comes in the form of an obscure but increasingly invoked part of the state rent law that allows landlords who claim that they want to take over apartments for themselves or their families to kick out rent-stabilized tenants. Unless tenants are rent-controlled, or they or their spouses are elderly or disabled, chances are they will lose their apartments. Even rent-controlled tenants can be evicted, but the process is much more difficult for the landlord. "It was a shock," says Goodman, "an eye-opening shock."
The provision, known as the owner's use law, is based on the theory that a landlord's right to use his property for his own needs surpasses the rights of a tenant, even one who is protected by rent laws. While the owner's use law is not newit has not even been modified since 1984what is new is how frequently it is being used, usually with success.
"The number of these cases has exploded in the last three years," says Sam Himmelstein, an attorney who has represented tenants facing owner's use evictions. "Mostly it happens in brownstones and small buildings in the Village, the East Village, the Upper East Side. But we see it in Brooklyn, too. And if tenants say they're scared in an owner's use case, well, they should be. It's the only time you can legitimately get kicked out without doing something wrong."
While there are limits on how landlords can invoke the owner's use lawit applies only in buildings that are owned by individuals rather than corporations, for instance, and it is limited to landlords who will use the apartment as their primary residence in New York Citythe provision is, by and large, hugely generous to owners and treacherous for tenants. Himmelstein, for example, says his overall success rate in representing tenants in all sorts of housing matters is 80 percent. "If you took out owner's use cases," he says, "it would be 90 percent."
The law is also rife with potential for abuse by landlords who claim to want an apartment for personal use, but whose real goal is to replace regulated tenants with high-paying newcomers. Written largely at the behest of owners, the law does not require landlords to show that they need the space; they only need to convince a housing court judge that they intend to use it as a family apartment.
The law makes only a wan effort to discourage fraud, stipulating that owners who do abuse it "may" be forbidden from getting rent increases in the building for three years, and that tenants who were evicted "may" regain their old apartments at their old rents. But those sanctions are in practical terms meaningless, since by the time tenants can prove a landlord's abuse, they've been kicked out. Even then, the law gives landlords an opportunity to argue that they had to re-rent an apartment because a change in circumstances made it no longer necessary for them or their families to occupy it.
"The penalties are ridiculous and they never get enforced," says Michael McKee, a housing advocate at the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. "And there's no limit to the number of apartments an owner can take. I know of buildings that have been emptied of six or eight units. It's a gross inequity, and we'll be seeing much more of it as landlords get more aggressive."
Tenants who do stave off owner's use evictions usually win because they find evidence that the landlord's claims are bogus. But even that is a protracted and expensive prospect. "What it means is that you have between three and four months from the time you get a notice to conduct an investigation of whether the landlord is indeed acting in good faith," says tenant attorney Seth Miller. Himmelstein recommends that his clients hire detectives to find out where the landlord really lives, if family members truly need an apartment, and if they are indeed related. He also checks court records, searching for evidence he can use to call a bluff.
"I've turned up cases where a landlord claims he wants different apartments for the same family member, for instance," says Himmelstein. "I've found an owner in Park Slope who brought a case against a tenant, and never moved into the apartment, then re-rented it. Then they brought an owner's use case against another tenant. As soon as I let them know I knew what had happened in the first case, they dropped the second one."