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‘We have to keep people in their homes’: City Council votes to strengthen tenant protections

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The legislation aims to shield tenants from predatory landlords

The package of 17 bills works to strengthen tenant protections across New York City.
Max Touhey

The City Council voted Wednesday to approve a package of bills to strengthen protections for renters and prevent landlords from harassing tenants out of their homes.

The 17-bill bundle includes several measures aimed at making it harder for landlords to wield construction as a tool to bully tenants out of their apartments with sweeping new permits and approvals.

“This package of bills coupled with, hopefully, the strengthening of our rent laws will make a difference on behalf of tenants,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, referring to the series of rent reforms being debated in Albany. “We’re in a housing crisis, we’re in a homelessness crisis—we have to keep people in their homes.”

A trio of bills sponsored by City Council member Helen Rosenthal would shift the responsibility of developing a tenant protection plan—used when an occupied building is undergoing construction—from landlords to contractors. Each would be required to submit signed documents identifying the occupied apartments when seeking approvals for renovations.

False statements, or failing to submit a tenant protection plan altogether, would be subjected to civil and criminal penalties, including no less than $10,000 for the first offense, and at least $25,000 for each subsequent wrongdoing. Rosenthal’s legislation would also mandate the Department of Buildings (DOB) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to audit cases where landlords reported repairing hazardous conditions.

Another bill, sponsored by Council member Carlina Rivera, obligates the DOB to approve tenant protection plans prior to construction and routinely inspect sites to ensure landlords are complying with those regulations. In Rivera’s council district—the East Village and Lower East Side—private apartment buildings are plagued by notorious landlords who often use construction as a means to torment tenants into leaving lucrative apartments, in many cases, exposing them to hazardous conditions, such as toxic lead dust.

“We have seen some of the worst cases when it comes to private landlords—frivolous litigation, deprivation of services, and most relevant, I think to this package, harassment and the many times construction is weaponized as harassment,” said Rivera, who was a housing organizer at Good Old Lower East Side. “So [this bill] heightens scrutiny of tenant protection plans and increases enforcement of our building code standards.”

Other bills would require landlords to provide disclosures on buyout agreements, give tenants four years of rental history for their unit—to inform them of their legal rent—and provide copies of any violations issued against an occupied building.

The package also works to empower the DOB to identify false statements regarding occupancy at rent-regulated housing and require buildings officials audit a landlord’s entire portfolio of properties if they’re caught lying or failing to obtain proper building permits. Properties with excessive, hazardous violations would be outright denied building permits, other than to rectify those conditions. DOB inspectors would also be enabled to slap properties with stop work orders if they’re unable to gain access to a construction site and have reason to believe that work is being done in violation of the law.

Other legislation still would make information on rent overcharges and illicit construction history available online, increase city inspections, and mandate the DOB audit 25 percent of properties on the city’s speculation watch list, which identifies recently sold rent-regulated buildings where potentially predatory investment may put tenants at risk.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the package into law.