New York’s slumlords force out their rent-stabilized tenants in a number of horrific and well-documented ways: They tear out fireproofing, they punch holes in basement walls, they take axes to boilers and water mains. But the real problems are vacate orders that put tenants out on the street.
Lower Manhattan councilwoman Margaret Chin has again taken up her fight to stop those damning orders at the source.
Chin, along with housing and tenant advocates, argue that vacate orders are being used by savvy landlords who allow or force their buildings to fall to unsafe levels, at which point the city forces tenants to vacate the premises.
But a raft of new rules proposed by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development has prompted Chin to again propose legislation (here is her bill) that makes it easier for the city to get money from landlords who let their buildings fall into disrepair.
The bill would require landlords the HPD suspects of bad behavior to place ten percent of a building’s rent rolls from a five-year period into an escrow account. The city would use the money in the event it needs to swiftly relocate displaced tenants. The department is already allowed to recover the costs of tenant relocation from landlords, but Chin’s bill would allow the department to pick up those costs up-front.
“I want this bill passed by the end of the year,” Chin said at a January 29 press conference promoting the legislation. “We want to be able to punish the bad actors.”
The Real Estate Board of New York this week told Capital New York the proposal would unfairly hurt landlords. Last week, board president Steven Spinola told DNAinfo that “[t]his legislation would better protect tenants by strengthening the existing HPD program to relocate tenants instead of cutting into funds used for building repairs and maintenance.”
Chin first proposed her bill in 2011, during former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, but it went nowhere. She’s hoping the tenant-friendly administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio will make it easier to push the legislation through this time around.
“It’s a new administration,” she says, pointing to a successful housing bill signed by City Council last year that doubles fines (to $10,000) for tenant-harassing landlords. “There [have] been many good housing bills.”
Earlier this month, the HPD held a hearing to discuss changes to its relocation services policies. Among the proposals was a measure that would give tenants just thirty days to decide whether to accept relocation assistance from the city. Under this rule, tenants would only receive one option for temporary housing. Currently, they are shown three options.
Chin is now pushing to get her legislation, which she introduced for a second time in February 2014, its first hearing. She says she’s worried the new HPD proposals, if enacted, will “create a living hell” for tenants who are slapped with vacate orders through no fault of their own, but because of their landlords’ indiscretions. If it’s going to be harder for tenants to get help, it’s all the more important that they don’t get kicked out in the first place. She hopes the bill would be an incentive for landlords to avoid vacate orders and keep their apartments in satisfactory condition.
“There’s a war going on for housing across this city,” says Adam Meyers, a lawyer for the nonprofit Brooklyn Legal Services, which often represents rent-stabilized tenants. “In this war, landlords have long recognized vacate orders are a powerful tool to evict tenants.”
Here is a typical scenario, according to Meyers: A building will become uninhabitable — either from neglect or from intentional mistreatment. Then the New York City Department of Buildings or the fire department will issue a notice to vacate, making it illegal for tenants to return into the building before it has been repaired. This forces many rent-stabilized tenants to suddenly decide whether to find a new home, or couch-surf indefinitely as they wait for the building to become ready for them to move in again.
Meyers says he’s represented clients who have come home from court against their landlords to find their boiler, main water pipe, and electric meter destroyed with an ax.
After each of these incidents, which Meyers believes were intentionally orchestrated by landlords to force out their rent-stabilized tenants, the buildings were slapped with vacate orders.
“Once tenants are displaced by these vacate orders, there are extremely long odds of getting back into their apartments,” he says. “They give up.”
The HPD hasn’t commented either way on the bill, but Chin says she’s received some support from the department because the legislation could bring in needed money to help foot the bill for the expensive relocation help.
The bill has twelve co-sponsors in addition to Chin. Two more councilmembers have expressed interest in supporting it.