Cases of tenant harassment in the city are as old as time, but it doesn't mean that each one isn't bad in its own special way. Looking to slow down the pitiless real estate machine a little bit, seven City Council members introduced a series of bills aimed at expanding the definition of the term and increasing punishments for any landlords found liable for harassing tenants.
The bills were introduced this week by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, as well as council members Mark Levine, Carlos Menchaca, Ritchie Torres, Helen Rosenthal and Jumaane Williams. Like the Super Friends, or probably more accurately the Planeteers, the combined bills aim to give tenants more power in their fight against landlords who they accuse of trying to harass them out of their homes.
One of the changes that's being proposed is the creation of a "rebuttable presumption," which would mean that tenants wouldn't need to prove that a landlord intended to harass them when they brought a claim before a court.
Mark-Viverito's bill creates the "rebuttable presumption" that when a landlord commits acts that are classified as harassment, they can be classified as such in court. Levine's bill classifies visiting or contacting a tenant "repeatedly" during unusual hours as harassment; Menchaca's bill would make the law that even if a landlord directs harassment actions at different tenants it can be classified as "repeated" harassment" efforts.
Rosenthal's bill would expand tenant harassment laws to cover behavior in private buildings, and Torres's bill would allow a court to consider "non-rent fees" on a rent bill as being put there to make a tenant leave their home.
On the enforcement side, Williams's bill would raise civil penalties for violating rules against tenant harassment, and another bill from Rosenthal would let a housing court "award statutory damages, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees and costs for tenant harassment actions."
In the case of Levine's bill, he told Gothamist that knocking on tenants' doors early in the morning or late at night is an "all too common tactic by unscrupulous landlords" who are trying to get the tenants to accept a buyout." The tactic "often comes with the goal of intimidation" Levine said.
"It is perfectly reasonable and legal for landlords to offer tenants buyouts, but a subset of unscrupulous landlords have gone further and repeatedly, insistently, aggressively early in the morning, late at night, pushed these offers that makes these tenants feel like they have no choice," Levine said, stressing that his bill was more about keeping the buyout offers from being delivered in an intimidating fashion.
One proposal that isn't in the package of bills is landlord licensing, which Levine told us he would want to "know a little more about how that would work in practice."
"There's a concern there's a small number of bad actors among owners that are repeat offenders, and often they own many buildings under different corporate names. To find a way to crack down on those bad actors so they can't again and again and again inflict unfair practices on tenants is a critical goal," Levine told us.