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Tenants have their day in court -City Council backs new safeguards for renters

The contentious relationship between tenants and landlords in Brooklyn is about to become even more fraught with the City Council's passing of the Tenant Protection Act, enabling tenants to bring their landlords to Housing Court on cases involving harassment.

"This bill is a historic step forward," Speaker Christine Quinn said. "Tenants could never, until today, take their landlord to court for harassment. This bill holds landlords accountable in court, and by doing that, it will stop the harassment and help the housing crisis."

The legislation, passed February 27, will create a Class C violation for harassment, based on actions that an owner takes against a tenant with the intention of vacating the dwelling unit or waiving right to its occupancy.

Some of the actions that qualified as harassment under the legislation included using repeated force or making repeated threats to a tenant's well-being, cutting off essential services such as heat, electricity and running water, removing a tenant's possessions, removing doors or damaging locks to a unit, or any other repeated or prolonged acts designed to pressure a tenant to vacate their apartment.

"This bill will get to the heart of harassment and get to those meritorious cases that need to be heard," said Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan, Chair of the Housing Committee. "Harassment is out there and alive today, and we are paying special attention to harassment with the intent to deregulate or destabilize rent-stabilized apartments."

Last year, over 13,000 apartments were deregulated in New York City, according to the City Wide Task Force on Housing Court and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Landlords have filed 97.5 percent of the cases in Housing Court, and since 2000 the average number of cases that landlords have filed each year to evict tenants has increased by 25.4 percent since 1990.

"This is the litmus test. Now we have legislation that will track the process from start to finish in a coordinated fashion should the allegation of harassment be founded," said Councilmember Diana Reyna, who, along with Dilan, voted in favor of the bill. "No longer will a woman feel threatened by her landlord to be reported by the INS or be evicted by any means necessary. This is about confronting fear."

Under the current law, tenants are limited to taking their landlord to Housing Court only for violations relating to the physical condition of the apartment or failures to provide essential services. This has led to tenants and nonprofit housing advocates making multiple trips to Housing Court every time a landlord denies services or fails to improve the building's living conditions after a tenant makes a 311 call to the Department of Housing and Preservation Development.

"I think this legislation is a long-overdue recognition that tenants should not have to suffer threats, neglect and mistreatment from landlords attempting to force tenants to move," said Sister Kathy Marie, acting director of the Bushwick Housing Independence Project. "We applaud it and trust that the courts will use it to protect the great diversity of our city."

Community organizations including Make the Road New York, BHIP, United Neighbors Organization and St. Nicholas NPC brought dozens of tenant advocates who waited around City Hall for much of the day until the vote was taken.

"As you know our community is changing very fast, and luxury housing is in every corner and long term residents are being pushed out of the community and landlords are finding more ways to harass tenants," said Rolando Guzman, a housing advocate with St. Nicholas NPC in Williamsburg, one of the first organizations working on the draft of the bill. "This legislation will empower tenants to fight back on the grounds of harassment. We celebrate this legislation and now our job will be to go back to the community and train the community about this legislation."

Although there were few representatives of landlords at the hearing, the bill is expected to re-ignite strained relations between owners and tenants in many Brooklyn neighborhoods.

At an owner's forum sponsored by HPD and held at the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center two months ago, about one hundred owners from Northeast and Central Brooklyn voiced their displeasure with problem tenants and the Section 8 program. Many of the owners expressed their suspicions that City Council and HPD were pro-tenant in their housing laws and enforcement policies. Councilmember Dilan again tried to ease those concerns at City Hall this week.

"For the owners who act in good faith, they don't have anything to worry about," Dilan said. "The bad actors are going to get hammered."

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