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.

"I called her office and asked for a meeting," said Jackie Del Valle, an organizer for CASA (Community Action for Safe Apartments), which is based on Townsend Avenue in the West Bronx. "They said they'd get back to me. Then we heard nothing for two weeks."

To get Baez's attention, Del Valle brought a couple dozen residents last Tuesday to form a picket line in front of Baez's office at 176th Street and the Grand Concourse. They marched around an immense red dollar sign made of wood chanting about tenant rights.

Among those present was Harold Dell, 65, who lives on nearby Morris Avenue. "Right now the landlord is a bank, and they keep taking us to court," he said. "We can't even find a super to call when things break." Maggie Silva, 72, limped to the rally from her top-floor apartment on the Grand Concourse. Her ceilings have collapsed repeatedly in the past three years. "She has had to go to housing court every time to get repairs," said Del Valle. "With this bill, she could file for harassment and, hopefully, get some justice."

Baez wasn't at her office to meet Silva or hear the chants. At City Hall the next day, the councilwoman was asked why she'd introduced the countermeasure. "For balance," she said without breaking stride as she walked through the rotunda. Had she met with the RSA, the landlord organization? "No. Never met with them," she said.

Frank Ricci, the longtime lobbyist for the RSA, remembered the process differently. "We met with her, and with Rivera," he said in a telephone interview. "Our concern with the Speaker's bill is that there's a potential for a lot of frivolous cases and no one to screen them."

Had he just been passing through when he met with the council members? "No," he said, "it was a meeting. It was at City Hall. Baez and her staff, and Rivera and his staff, were there."

Under term limits, both Baez and Rivera are in their final years as council members. Baez's future plans are unclear, but in the game of musical chairs that term limits creates, Rivera is expected to run for Bronx borough president. Is that true, he was asked? He is an agreeable young man, and his face crinkled into a smile. "That's something we are looking at," he replied.

Such a race will cost at least $1 million. So far, Rivera has raised $155,000 toward that goal. Half of it has come from the real estate industry.

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