Testimony: Amending Anti-Tenant Harassment Laws

Testimony Philippo Salvio, Pro Bono Scholar of Housing Project, Before the NYC Council Subcommittee on Housing and Buildings: Amending the Definition of Harassment to Include Repeated Buyout Offers.

April 29, 2015

Chair Jumaane D. Williams, Councilmembers, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to discuss the proposed amendments to Local Law 7 of 2008. My name is Philippo Salvio and I am a Pro Bono Scholar with the Housing Project at the New York Legal Assistance Group (“NYLAG”), a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBT community, Holocaust survivors, and veterans, as well as others in need of free legal services.

The Housing Project at NYLAG sees countless tenants who have suffered harassment by their landlord, both criminal harassment and conduct that falls under the Anti-Tenant Harassment law. We frequently speak to tenants who have suffered from persistent buyout offers, which are concerted efforts made by landlords to circumvent rent-regulation laws and to take advantage of economic inequalities. These offers are usually for much less than the value of the apartment to the landlord, and such conduct often ends up inducing tenants to vacate their homes.

Repeated buyout offers are an unconscionable practice that allows landlords to apply persistent pressure on vulnerable tenants to give up their apartments. Landlords will often abuse their positions of power and wealth to force tenants, many of whom are low-income, out of their homes. Landlords have used this practice to essentially circumvent rent regulation laws and the legal safeguards of a Housing Court proceeding to evict low-income tenants out of their homes.

The constant pressure of a buyout offer forces many tenants into compromising situations. Tenants immediately lose their sense of desirability and community when confronted with the proposition that they are no longer wanted and but for the laws protecting rent stabilized tenants, would have been evicted. Landlords who persist and pressure their tenants with repeated buyout offers know that it will only be a matter of time before the tenants give up their apartments.

While some tenants can stave off initial buyout offers, landlords will often resort to intimidating and often illegal practices to force tenants to surrender their tenancy rights. For example, NYLAG is currently working with a low-income client in Red Hook who was impacted by Hurricane Sandy. The client lives in a rent stabilized building where the landlord has refused to accept her T-DAP subsidy payments and has been pressuring her to accept a buyout of her apartment. The landlord has already bought out other tenants in the building and has made it incredibly difficult for the tenant to remain there. Since the landlord has refused to accept the T-DAP subsidy, the landlord has been charging her a rental amount that the client cannot afford, but also should not be paying. With the pressure of possibly being brought to housing court in a non-payment eviction proceeding, the landlord has created the optimal situation for our client to accept a buyout that she ultimately does not want.

Persistent buyout offers should not be considered protected speech under the First Amendment, especially when tenants have made it clear to their landlords that they are unwilling to give up their tenancy rights. Like other forms of commercial activity, persistent buyout offers constitutes speech susceptible to regulation, especially when the speech is often used to intimidate and harass other individuals. Landlords are in a position of power simply from the nature of a landlord-tenant relationship and often from the economic inequality between the parties. A tenant that has refused a buyout offer should be free from subsequent landlord harassment, when such a tactic is often intended to break down the tenant into vacating the apartment.

The amendments proposed by this Committee are certainly a move in the right direction. Including repeated buyout offers as a form of harassment will serve as a deterrent to aggressive landlord behavior and will maintain communities that have been plagued with or are at risk of displacement.

However, while this proposed amendment will help safeguard vulnerable tenants from aggressive landlord behavior, we strongly urge this Committee to strengthen the ant-harassment laws by considering further amendments that provide necessary protections for tenants from common dishonest practices.

We ask the Committee to consider amending the intent requirement for proving harassing behavior to a standard that better protects tenants. As the law currently stands, tenants have to prove that the actions of the landlord were intended to induce them to give up lawfully-held tenancy rights. Many landlords will often defend egregious behavior and practices on the grounds that their actions were never specifically intended to force the tenants out of their buildings. This makes it incredibly difficult for tenants, many of whom are pro se, to prove the harassment on the record despite there being more than substantial evidence of harassing behavior. Landlords should be penalized for behavior that they knew or should have known would have been likely to force tenants to give up their occupancies.

We also ask the Committee to consider codifying a presumption of harassment when landlords bring at least two claims against tenants that are dismissed within the span of five years. Landlords and their attorneys recklessly bring baseless claims against tenants with the goal of forcing the tenant to move out. Tenants are severely prejudiced when being brought to court on baseless claims. Tenants must go through the taxing experience and costs of having to go to Housing Court, as well as deal with being put on the Tenant Blacklist, which makes it incredibly difficult for the tenant to find another apartment in the future. In many situations, it is often difficult for tenants to prove on the record that a claim brought against them is frivolous, nor do they know that they need to ask for it to specifically be found frivolous, as opposed to just having a Judge dismiss the case. A presumption of harassment from two dismissed cases within five years will deter landlords from using legal proceedings as intimidation tactics to get tenants to vacate their occupancies.

Finally, we also ask the Committee to strike down the bar from bringing a future harassment claim if the tenant has brought three frivolous harassment suits against the landlord over the span of 10 years. Many tenants that are unfamiliar with the legal process or are pro se litigants are prevented from asserting their anti-harassment rights against legitimate acts of harassment. In the alternative, changing the threshold to three claims within five years will allow tenants to safely assert their rights without fear of losing their protections in the future.

We conclude by urging the City Council to continue to make the following amendments to the current Anti-Tenant Harassment law:

  • Include persistent buyout offers as one of the definitions of harassment
  • Illegalize behavior that the landlord knew or should have known would have been likely to force the tenant to give up their occupancies.
  • Codifying a presumption of harassment when the landlord brings two dismissed claims against the tenant with a five-year period.
  • Striking down any bar from tenants to bringing future harassment claims against the landlord or in the alternative, changing the threshold to three claims within a five-year period.

We would welcome the opportunity to further discuss or comment on these matters in the future. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,

Philippo Salvio
Pro Bono Scholar, Housing Project, NYLAG