Slumming for Landlords

A pair of Bronx pols try to shoot down the latest in tenant protection

When it comes to lopsided battles, it's hard to top the steady war that's long raged between New York's landlords and their tenants.

Any given weekday, just poke your head into a hearing room in the city's housing courts. There, row upon row of despairing tenants grimly clutch legal papers that demand back rent and/or eviction. Stalking the aisles, briefcases in hand, shouting out the names of their next victims, is a platoon of lawyers, all of them representing building owners willing to spare no legal expense.

As combat, this has all the fairness of a Panzer division rolling up on a fife-and-drum corps.

More than 90 percent of tenants arrive in these corridors without any kind of legal representation; for landlords, the ratio is the exact reverse. And no wonder: At stake here are the enormous profits that New York's housing market represents, now more than ever.

A hefty lawyer's retainer? Just a business deduction. An apartment vacated by a tenant paying an affordable, regulated rent? Priceless.

Which is why a group of tenant advocates seized the moment last year and began pressing City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, herself a former housing organizer, to introduce new legislation that would try to balance the scales a little, giving tenants something more of a fighting chance.

Quinn took them up on it. Two disturbing trends, cited to her by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, caught the speaker's attention: One is the steady slippage of apartments from rent regulation for reasons having nothing to do with reaching the magic deregulation mark of $2,000 a month; the other is the recent flood of private-equity money into buildings occupied by tenants whose current rents are nowhere near high enough to meet the returns that the new investors are likely to demand.

The bill that resulted from those talks would try to keep everyone honest. It would allow tenants subjected to repeated and purposeful abuses—where owners have withheld heat and hot water, constantly failed to make repairs, or dumped garbage in the hallways—to cite landlords for harassment. For the first time, harassment would be covered under the city's housing-maintenance code, with violators subject to stiff fines and other penalties.

Introduced in October by Quinn and Manhattan council members Daniel Garodnick, who fought to keep apartments at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village affordable, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose East Harlem district is rapidly becoming a real estate hunting ground, Intro No. 627 is headed for hearings later this month before the council's housing and buildings committee.

As is a little look-alike piece of legislation called Intro 638 that was quickly introduced in response by a pair of Bronx legislators happy to oblige the city's ever-generous real estate lobby. The competing bill mandates that every harassment complaint be screened outside the courts to make sure it's legitimate. It also contains the novel notion of letting landlords sue tenants for their own harassment. The goal here is to snuff this new tenants'-rights legislation in its cradle by generating much heat and little light about its potential impact.

"We just don't want to open a Pandora's box," said Joel Rivera, the 28-year-old council majority leader, whose father is Bronx Democratic Party boss and State Assemblyman Jose Rivera. "Tenants who have a legitimate case deserve their day in court. But what we're worried about," Rivera added as he sat in the gallery in the council chamber last week, "is that there could be a lot of frivolous cases brought under this. We met with the tenant groups, and I said, 'I hear you, but I have a responsibility to make sure it doesn't produce frivolous cases.' "

Here now is a far-sighted legislator. Every day in housing court, there is a parade of panicked tenants who have received eviction notices claiming they never paid rent. They must comb through bureaus and pocketbooks in desperate search of their receipts. After these crumpled papers are produced, the landlords' lawyers shrug. "Never mind," they say. Since the tenants have no lawyers of their own to sputter to the judge about this outrageously frivolous and anxiety-producing waste of everyone's time, these abuses go unchecked.

It has not previously occurred to anyone that there could be a long line of vengeful tenants bent on payback, scheming about filing their own frivolous lawsuits to burn up the landlords' profits. "It's human nature," shrugged Rivera.

The councilman was asked if he'd had any help crafting his bill. "No, this was a result of a few of us in the council talking it over," he said.

Had he consulted with landlord advocates, such as the Rent Stabilization Association, the prime lobbying arm for building owners? "Just in passing," he answered. Rivera couldn't remember when or where the discussions took place, or who the landlord representatives were. "I can't remember who it was. But it was just in passing, not a set meeting or anything."

The landlord reps, whoever they were, said that what Speaker Quinn's bill needed was "balance," Rivera recalled.

Rivera is actually not the lead sponsor on the counterproposal. That honor fell to Maria Baez, another Bronx representative and a close ally of the Rivera clan who once served as chief of staff to Rivera's father. When Baez's name appeared on the bill, tenant organizers in her district asked to discuss the matter.

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