Monday, December 03, 2007

Home Rule

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
John Howard Payne (1791 - 1852)

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Bob Dylan (1941 - )

If you can remember Housing Court in the 70’s, it was a wild experience.
Judges were so pro-tenant attorneys had to do little more than urge their clients to show the Court a copy of the front side of a rent check in a non-payment action and the case was dismissed out of hand.
It was difficult to be evicted from a rent-controlled or stabilized apartment for anything other than not having paid rent for months or years – and even then the Judge usually ordered the landlord to take minimal payments and forestall the act of putting the tenant out on the street.

A visit to one Housing Court Judge's chambers was as likely as not a visit to the inner sanctum of a not-so-closeted Liberal. One visitor to Chambers reported seeing a poster of Che Guevara on the wall.

That was then.

The pendulum has moved so far to the right that the poster on the Judge’s wall is now more likely to be that of Karl Rove or George Bush. Come to think of it even those luminaries are a little too far to the left.

At a meeting last week, Borough President Scott Stringer spoke at a SoHo Alliance meeting and the issue of tenants’ rights was raised. Stringer answered a few questions and elaborated upon his strong support of tenants rights groups against attempts by real estate management companies, landlords and developers to evict tenants.
What he heard from the audience was a claim that in Manhattan in particular there is a not-so-disguised attempt to de facto eradicate rent-control and rent-stabilization -- as well as silence market rate tenants. Landlords are being given immunity from criticism, complaints, prosecution, or any other legal action that would preclude them from collecting rent – even in health or life-threatening conditions through the apathy of the courts and City agencies.
Further, Stringer heard that there is a clear trend that many landlords and developers are now utilizing a favorite tactic in ridding their buildings of controlled tenants by harassing them through the use for the legal system. It keeps their hands clean and lawyers do the dirty work with the help of the court system.

The comments that Stringer heard were only the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, we are now living in the midst of an organized and well-funded system that involves several of the City agencies, law firms that specialize in Holdover actions, certain landlords, and Housing Court.
Politicians have become acutely aware of the problem but it has gone far beyond anyone’s expectations and has entered the domain of widespread and tolerated legal abuse. Department of Buildings, the DCHR, HPD and especially City Hall is involved. The Justice system, reminiscent of the bust that took down a number of cozy little relationships in the Brooklyn Courts, is starting to look a bit flaky in Manhattan.

Tenants groups look to the politicians and to the Community Boards to support them and act as an entry-level watchdog when it comes to problems that need to be addressed. Board pass Resolutions that deal with abuses and hopefully, ultimately force the government to take notice. If they are ignored the elected officials incur the wrath of tenants (voters) and must answer to them at the polls. That is the theory of how our democratic system functions. But, is it working?

Recently, Speaker Quinn introduced legislation that would impose fines for tenant harassment. The Bill would fine a landlord $5,000 for “Tenant Harassment.” It is a much needed and appreciated piece of legislation. We hope that it is followed by additional actions and legislation on the part of our elected officials – and that the missing piece is also dealt with.
That would be -- enforcement.

The current system, as interpreted by City and State agencies in their current state of apathy, mismanagement or corruption – allows the current legal system to litigate tenants out of their apartments. There is virtually no enforcement.
There is a long laundry list of what tenants can be attacked for. The list may start with having a roommate that has not been approved by the landlord; not recycling and properly disposing of garbage; or making alterations in one's apartment. It’s a long list and for the most part is neither of interest nor enforced by landlords. It’s simply available as a bag of tricks when they want to press the legal button on an offending tenant. It is a targeting mechanism.

Here’s the point.

Currently, if a landlord decides to “press the button” on a tenant, as the term is used by fellows with funny noses, there is virtually no defense against the legal anschluss. There are a few law firms in Manhattan that specialize in this form of legalized tenant abuse (several of which are under investigation) -- which utilize repeated and persistent legal actions against tenants.

Thus far, no elected official or City agency has looked carefully at the Court system and contacted the Attorney General and asked him to step in.

Law firms are acting for landlords in unison with the Courts and City agencies to perpetrate a crime against the fabric, the artistic and cultural essence, of our City. Senior citizens, artists, community activists, minorities, all face the new and relentless attempt to rob them of their homes.
It is happening because Developers want to raze buildings and sell condos, it is happening because there is no serious attempt to create affordable housing, and it is primarily happening because landlords want to raise rents beyond the restrictions on rent-controlled and stabilized apartments so to create market rate apartments.

Once an apartment is market-rate – virtually nothing can stop a landlord from evicting a tenant during or at the end of the one or two year lease that is offered.
No matter whether there is heat, water, or elevator service – or if the apartment is full of lead paint and there is black mold growing on the walls. If a tenant complains – he or she is OUT. No new lease.
With a 2 or 3% vacancy rate, nothing stops a landlord from simply telling the tenant –“If you complain, I won’t give you a new lease.”
The potential for abuse of any and all tenant rights in this situation is not difficult to imagine. Imagine it, because that IS what is happening.
And, it is obvious that this is a dangerous situation. With incompetent or corrupt agencies that do little to protect tenants, landlords employ law firms that are “Legal Hit Men.”

What Speaker Quinn may or may not know is that there is no law against persistent legal actions against tenants. It is not illegal to start repeated Holdover Actions against a tenant. Whether the lawsuits are legally permitted, several law firms operate as enforcers by repeatedly suing a tenant and placing them in the position of paying more to stay in their apartments then they can afford – often using the tenant's rent money to pay their attorneys. At a certain point, by targeting certain tenants that complain or assert their rights, and who cannot afford to pay rent plus legal fees -- are forced to accept what is called a buy-out.
This small offer from the landlord, to vacate the apartment and end the litigation, is often the only option for an artist who cannot sell his paintings – or for the rent-controlled tenant who lives on a pension.

So, what can be done about this wholesale harassment of our city’s cultural life – so that we do not lose the people who created the Manhattan that everyone wants to move to?

The Community Boards need to face the fact that there is a crisis. The politicians need to understand that widespread abuse is occurring. And, the heads of City and State Agencies need to review their practices and re-allocate personnel so that tenant abuse is addressed – and PROSECUTED.
The Justice system needs to be scrutinized. Law firms need to be investigated and rated by State agencies.

A tenant recently complained to a Judge in Housing Court that as a single female she could not simply let the non-English speaking illegal immigrant workers come and go in her apartment without prior arrangements for her security. She did not know them and felt unsafe.
The Judge ruled that she had to let them in whenever they wanted to and that he saw no problem with their arriving unannounced -- and, he stated further from the bench, that there were many single women in Manhattan who let workers in and out of their apartments while the while they were home alone. Her safety was negated and she was insulted in the court.
The fact that women in the building had been raped was of no concern to him.

Doris Deither, a member of Community Board #2 had been fighting with her landlord for many years. She finally got to him for criminal actions. You don't fool with Doris.
The tenants at 80 Varick Street have been battling with the infamous Ramer & Saperstein dentist duo, which have targeted and evicted Tenants Organization members; they have been using the kinds of tactics that got Helmsley put away but so far have managed to avoid prosecution. Few have the focused ability of Board member Doris Deither to defend against illegal behavior.
The former Chair of Board #4 was the subject of years of torturous legal actions by the landlord.
Thus far, only Stringer’s actions and those initial steps by Quinn – and the nearly legendary strength of Deborah Glick – have been in evidence.

The Community Boards have done little to address the problems and while it is possible that many middle-class and upper-class members of the Boards are homeowners and thus do not have a vested interest in solving these problems – it is more likely that there is not sufficient awareness of what is going on. Community Board #1 has a Task Force and Community Board #2 has a Zoning and Housing Committee. But the issue of enforcement and harassment in the context of the City agencies and the outlaw behavior rampant in the legal system -- has not been addressed in these forums.
Rather than short-term solutions, ongoing committees need to specifically address the concerns and needs of tenants.

Entire communities like Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side and Chinatown are areas with large numbers of Rent-controlled and stabilized apartments that are being threatened. SoHo has a large number of market rate apartments with families that have no voice. Are these voters a base to ignore? Only recently, has Community Board #2 instituted a full committee, under Jim Solomon, which addresses Chinatown's needs. Until now, it has been a huge but neglected political and economic area Downtown.

New tenants organizations have begun organizing and there is little doubt that a political movement will arise due to the level of anger over the housing crisis we now face.
Community activists have started to recognize that some elected officials are more concerned with campaign contributions for landlords and developers than they are concerned with protecting their constituents – the voters.
Leaders who hope to run for political office must address this issue NOW or face a slippery downhill slope into oblivion.

We have now reached the crisis level as law firms ravage our communities. While some landlords live in gated communities, far from the eyes of the law, tenants are being robbed of their quite enjoyment, peace of mind and their homes.

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