Across New York City, landlords in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, eager to bring in higher-paying renters, have driven out tenants by harassing them with dangerous and annoying renovations.
Renters, tenant advocates, city officials and The Times have all documented the forced exodus of tenants from rent-stabilized apartments. That helps landlords glide through loopholes to get their buildings out of the rent-regulation system and onto the open market.
Construction workers toil at all hours of the day and night, making it impossible for residents to sleep. Hundred-year-old buildings are torn apart with little regard for safety, leaving tenants to breathe air filled with asbestos. In many cases, the construction regularly disturbs rodents and vermin, sending them scurrying into residents’ homes. Water lines and gas lines are sometimes cut. Heat may be cut off. The landlord of an Upper West Side rent-stabilized building undergoing renovation threatened to destroy a staircase, suggesting tenants use a fire escape instead.
Abusive landlords get away with this because of lax enforcement of weak laws. A package of bills before the City Council could change that by invigorating those regulations.
The most crucial protection of the vanishing stock of affordable housing could come in January, when Democrats take over the State Senate. But these Council bills address what New York City can do on its own.
Among the most promising of the 18 bills in the package are those that would require the city to greatly increase enforcement actions against bad landlords. One, for instance, would require the Department of Buildings to deny permits for new construction to buildings with unresolved violations for hazardous conditions, like unsafe construction or failure to provide basic services such as heat. This is important because those types of violations can be signs of illegal construction practices used to drive out tenants.
Another bill would require the city to inspect renovations and construction to ensure they do not violate city codes, critical in a system that relies far too heavily on self-reporting by landlords.
Yet another bill would increase penalties for submitting false information to the city about planned construction in buildings, as some owners do to hide the extent of construction and disruption, avoiding restrictions and scrutiny from city agencies. To give this bill teeth, the mayor needs to direct his agencies to be more aggressive in recovering uncollected fines.
There’s also a bill to require landlords to grant access to city inspectors, which would make it easier for enforcement agencies to conduct oversight of building owners undertaking renovations.
Some bills could be streamlined. But overall, they are necessary and deserve the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Council. De Blasio administration officials have said they are broadly supportive of some of the bills, but not all.
The Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s principal lobbying group, known as Rebny, has signaled it might support a small number of the bills.
“I don’t think Rebny has been forceful enough in saying this, but to the extent there are bad actors out there, we should be throwing the book at them,” Reggie Thomas, the group’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in a phone interview this week.
The group says a small number of lousy landlords give the rest a bad name. But if it’s serious about holding bad actors accountable, there’s no reason it shouldn’t support the bulk of this legislation.
The harassment that these bills address accelerates the displacement of New Yorkers from their homes, worsening a crisis that has left more than 60,000 people in city homeless shelters. The gentrification sweeping the entire city is not simply the natural result of a surging real estate market but also, in many cases, of fraud by a powerful industry.
City agencies charged with enforcing existing laws haven’t done enough to identify patterns of harassment and stop them. Mr. de Blasio, however, has made headway in changing this.
The Buildings Department has added 150 inspectors, and a City Hall spokeswoman said the city is hiring 62 more Housing Preservation and Development Department inspectors. And the city has provided free tenant attorneys for some 250,000 low-income New Yorkers since 2014, which has helped lower the eviction rate by nearly 30 percent.
Despite this progress, the city still seems to be struggling to meet the need. For instance, a tenant-advocate position created at the Department of Buildings in 2017 went unfilled for about a year.
Groups like the nonprofit Housing Rights Initiative have contributed the most impressive effort to push back on abuse. It helped tenants in Brooklyn file a suit in July against their building’s owner, accusing it of failing to protect them from dangerous construction practices. The owner? Jared Kushner’s family real estate company.
Jasen Kelly, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said constant construction eventually drove him out of his rent-stabilized apartment. “It was obvious their attitude was, ‘We’re going to make it as hard as possible for them to live in this place until they leave,’” he said.
Enacting the legislation before the City Council would be a good way to start helping tenants like Mr. Kelly stay in their homes.
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