Efforts by New York mayor Bill de Blasio to curb the strong-arm and harassment tactics used by landlords and residential property owners are receiving mixed reviews from tenants’-rights advocates across the city.
De Blasio and state attorney general Eric Schneiderman spent much of February 19 trumpeting their new tenant-harassment task force, which, they say, will foster greater communication between the city and state in prosecuting bad landlords. But some housing advocates say the mayor is sending mixed messages, as the city is also currently in the process of rezoning neighborhoods with large swaths of affordable housing and allowing developers to build more luxury residences.
“If across the street, studios are getting $2,000, why should our landlords not want to cash in?” said Imani Henry, lead organizer for Equality for Flatbush. In nearby Crown Heights, activist groups have battled the community board over whether to rezone Empire Boulevard and make room for condos on the major street.
The creation of the mayor and attorney general’s task force comes amid a spike in complaints from rent-stabilized tenants who say their property managers are using threatening and coercive tactics to try and force them out of their buildings. The city received 752 complaints about tenant harassment in housing court in the fiscal year 2013, and, since then, about 200,000 affordable housing units have become market-rate apartments. “We know some of that happened illegally,” de Blasio said at a press conference on the morning of February 19. “We know a lot of that — that happened illegally, could have been and should have been stopped.”
A de Blasio spokesperson told the Voice that tenants’ 311 complaints about their buildings would have once been answered by city bodies that only slap landlords with minimal fines. Now, depending on the complaint, that same call could lead to criminal charges against landlords who intentionally destroy rent-stabilized apartments. This kind of cooperation, said the spokesperson, will allow New York City to preserve its rent-stabilized housing stock, by raising the consequences for landlords who try to destroy it.
Rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments make up the city’s largest stock of affordable housing (which also includes homes that are kept affordable under a slew of other programs). The rent regulation of these particular units, most of which have been stabilized since before 1947, is subject to state rather than city rules. They can become market-rate apartments if rent-stabilized tenants move out and landlords successfully rent the units for more than $2,500 a month. So the city’s goal with its new Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force isn’t just to prevent landlords from harassing their tenants — it’s also to prevent affordable housing from disappearing into the real estate ether.
Tenant advocates like the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Brooklyn Legal Services applauded the move. “It’s absolutely true tenant harassment is a huge and growing problem,” said Adam Meyers, a lawyer for nonprofit Brooklyn Legal Services, which often represents tenants being harassed by their landlords. “I will say generally, we are eager to hear more about what this task force is going to be doing.”
But other groups noted a cloud of irony looming over the newly announced plan. While the city and state organize this task force, the New York City Planning Department is currently in the process of “upzoning” some of the city’s last cheap neighborhoods, like Flatbush and East New York, paving the way for more new high-density mixed and affordable housing.
The idea, supporters say, is that by letting developers build apartments, the city gets more housing stock. And the city will also demand that a set amount of those apartments become affordable residences. Some of that new housing stock will be 100 percent affordable; others will be a mix of affordable and market (or “luxury”) units.
Critics fear those buildings will also end up raising the profile of the neighborhood — giving landlords a stronger incentive to boot rent-stabilized tenants and to raise market rates in low-income neighborhoods.
“All the neighborhoods that we used to live in don’t represent us anymore. It’s not like we’re stupid,” said Henry. “This is beautiful — you want to [fight] some landlords that are heinous, but you are creating the conditions to flip this housing.”
But de Blasio’s spokesperson argued that rezoning neighborhoods in advance will have the exact opposite effect. By rezoning, the city can create a cushion against rising rents and plan mixed and affordable housing before the communities are hot commodities.
Creating a housing plan and a set of stringent tenant protections before a neighborhood becomes the next Williamsburg may well prevent rapacious landlords from seeing rent-stabilized apartments as their new profit opportunity.
“Rezoning offers us an opportunity to lock in the existing affordability of a neighborhood,” said the spokesman. “The market is going through Brooklyn, rezoning or not. The question is whether we can get ahead of it.”