A tenants’ handbook designed in the spirit of radical tracts hit stores last month, and while it looks promising—the cover is illustrated with a clenched fist bursting through a cityscape, the author identified only as Tenant X—its most prominent feature is how radically misinformed it can be. The 88-page guide, called Tenant Power, is subtitled The Bible For N.Y.C. Tenant Rights, but it is filled with enough errors that those who rely on it might find themselves needing a prayer book as well.
“A lot of this book oversimplifies things and, while it’s laid out nicely with some practical tips on nuts and bolts, there’s a lot of misadvice,” says Andrew Scherer, project director of the Legal Support unit at Legal Services for New York City and author of a 1000-page tome on landlord-tenant law. “The law is complicated and the book is necessarily reductive, but you have an obligation to be accurate. I found it certainly misleading; it could put people in trouble.”
X, who wants anonymity because he fears his book will “annoy major landlords,” defends Tenant Power and says it was edited by a top tenant attorney, although he acknowledges that the book’s claim that several real estate attorneys edited it is wrong. X says TP will be revised to make some corrections pointed out by the Voice. But he is unlikely to correct misstatements he insists are not wrong, adding that Barnes & Noble, where the book is sold, “had their own attorneys check the facts.” Debra Williams, director of corporate communications at Barnes & Noble, says no such checking was done.
And revisions won’t help those who have already purchased the self-published $15 pamphlet, which boasts, “The writer of this book lived rent free in New York City and was paid $55,000 from his landlord!!!” In fact, X says he gained his expertise from a four-year battle with a landlord who charged him 10 times the legal rent registered with the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR). Of the $55,000, $15,000 came from a DHCR order; the rest he got when his landlord “decided to buy me out of the building.” X now rents in a co-op.
From obvious mistakes like stating that rent-controlled apartments are stabilized (X says he’ll fix that), to bad advice like suggesting tenants have their walls drilled to test for asbestos, to legally dicey directions like advising roommates to simply add their name to a lease to gain legal status, TP could indeed do more harm than good. Perhaps X’s best tip is his constant warning that readers should consult an attorney.
TP does offer some solid advice: Tenants who have been evicted, for instance, can almost always get a judge to let them back into an apartment to retrieve medicine. The description of agreements landlords and tenants make to avoid going to trial in housing court is sound. Indeed, Joe Strasburg, who runs a landlord lobby, says TP is “not a bad road map” for tenants, and Adam Weinstein, a tenant attorney with the West Side S.R.O. Law Project, calls it “oversimplified, but all in all a nice overview.”
Dan Margulies, on the other hand, has little good to say about the book. “It’s horribly sloppy and people could get hurt using this,” says Margulies, another landlord lobbyist who can’t be expected to like Tenant Power much. “My conclusion is that first Tenant X ripped off his landlord for $55,000 and now he’s ripping off tenants for $15 each,” he says. “He’s going to make a fortune off them, and they will suffer every bit as much as his old landlord did.”
Even some tenant activists have profound misgivings about the book. “Some of the advice is adequate and acceptable, but some is sketchy, misleading, or wrong,” says veteran tenant organizer Michael McKee of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. “It also doesn’t sit right with me that he won’t put his name on the book. But that’s a minor concern compared to the many flat-out errors. In a lot of ways, it could be very dangerous.”
Writing a tenants’ rights handbook is an ambitious undertaking, and indeed, as X argues, different tenant attorneys have different approaches. But TP too often fails not on points of interpretation or approach, but in points of fact and understanding. Consider:
— It advises roommates who want to keep an apartment after the prime tenant leaves to “put your name on the lease.” But that could result in eviction. Only a spouse can be added to a lease without landlord approval, says tenant attorney Sam Himmelstein. The current edition of TP suggests that if a landlord wants the name of the roommate, it must be provided in 30 days, and X says he’ll add the fact that a landlord can challenge a roommate.
— Tenants whose landlord has refused to break a lease should try to get around it, the book says, by attempting to sublet. But later, X adds vital information: sublets are illegal unless a landlord approves and the primary tenant intends to return. “If you’re breaking the lease because you’re not coming back and you apply for a sublet, I’d say the owner has good reason to say no,” says Margulies. “The advice is ridiculous.”
— According to X, a landlord can collect a vacancy allowance the first time an apartment is passed from an original tenant to a qualified succeeding family member. That’s wrong. Vacancy hikes begin with the second succession.
Other errors that could spell trouble abound, but X dismisses some of them as “typos.” The book confuses a legal document called a Ten Day Notice to Cure with a Thirty Day Notice to Terminate; readers might mistakenly think they have more time to remedy a situation. He states that apartments renting for over $2000 are decontrolled and offered to fix the error by calling them deregulated. Neither is accurate. Apartments are deregulated only when the rent hits $2000 upon vacancy, or when occupants are high-income. Absent that caveat, tenants might believe they could lose rent protection once their rent hit $2000 through regular increases.
The inexactitude of X’s advice for gathering information may be less legally perilous but is still annoying in a book meant to help. His information on how to use public computers in housing court is wrong. And he literally leads readers astray, sending them to a Greenwich Avenue address to get a book that is actually found in the Manhattan Municipal Building (he says he’ll correct that) and to information tables he reports as being located in courtrooms; there is only one such table, on the ground floor of Manhattan Housing Court.
Among his most stunning mistakes is misidentifying tenant.net, an unabashedly protenant Web site, as belonging to DHCR, a government agency with a prolandlord reputation among tenants. X again brushes off the error as a “typo,” but it seems more of a fumble that could be made only by someone who doesn’t follow landlord-tenant relations.
Tenant Power‘s last information concerns learning how much a landlord “payed for a building,” by using a particular real estate directory. X misstates that the guide includes information on boroughs outside Manhattan. TP opens with a disclaimer and closes with a typo and a factual error. Free advice may be worth what you pay for it, but this $15 tract is no bargain.