Vacancy Deregulation —
The Once and Future Onslaught

by Steven Dobkin

If recent history is any guide, vacancy deregulation will mark the beginning of a new onslaught against low income tenants, in particular those living in the path of real estate development, and very little will be done about it.

In February of 1972, in the early days of Rockefellerís vacancy decontrol, I began defending tenants as a VISTA lawyer assigned to South Brooklyn Legal Services. Vacancy decontrol had begun at the end of June of 1971, and the blitz against regulated tenants was already going full blast. A landlord was allowed to do whatever he wanted with every apartment freed up by a departure in life, or death. Once vacated, apartments could be held empty for years, or rented for whatever the inflamed market would bear.

It was a field day for landlordsí lawyers. Every conceivable technical lease violation rose to the magnitude of a "substantial breach" as owners bombarded the landlord-tenant court with baseless holdover proceedings. During this period of undiluted vacancy decontrols I represented an elderly couple accused of throwing wild parties at all hours and a large family evicted for using too much toilet paper.

The proceedings in Brooklynís housing court were a nightmare for tenants. Those who could not afford a lawyer or qualify for legal services were thrown to the mercy of the landlord bar who roamed through the halls of the court armed with a threat and a possible deal. More often than not, worn out by adjournments, and thoroughly confused by the proceedings, the tenant would agree to move out. In those days there were still places to move to.

The signs of the onslought were everywhere. The subtle forms of harassment were often not so subtle. Elderly and mentally ill people often told me of random events that could be attributed to forgetfulness or paranoia. Money and jewelry were missing from drawers. Thugs seemed to be the new tenants of choice in many buildings, where they would openly use drugs, bang heavy objects against the walls late at night, and menace tenants in the halls.

Senior citizens frequently complained that the landlordís goons were entering their apartment whenever they went out. At least three elderly women in different buildings who otherwise seemed in full command of their faculties made the bizarre claim that their underwear was found slashed in their bureau drawers while they were out shopping.

Those tenants who lived in the path of development faced a particularly precarious future. In neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Flatbush, Borough Park, and Park Slope, where property values had shot up, and young, affluent Manhattanites were looking for value and a decent place to live, regulated tenants became sitting ducks. "Development" often meant reducing the number of apartments by half as smaller units were combined into luxury apartment. Gentrification also caused a shift in ethnic composition. People who had lived in a neighborhood all their lives were faced with relocation to make way for wealthier people.

One day in the winter of 1972, Mercedes Vega, who had lived in her rent controlled ground floor building at 13-15 Strong Place in Cobble Hill for more than thirty years returned home from shopping to discover that a wrecking ball had knocked down the rear wall of her bedroom. She found herself looking directly out into the back garden. A week before, the new owner had written a letter to all tenants at Strong Place that he could not be responsible for their life and limb while renovations were going on.

In Brooklyn Heights, in the winter of 1973, Mr. Margulies, the Receiver of rents at the Hotel St.George, attended a meeting with the remaining long term tenants. He pleaded for understanding of the underlying problem leading to the need for them to pack their things and migrate from the Towers to the Weller Building (and, later to the Clark Building)."Itís the Arabs!" he stormed."Theyíre making it impossible to heat the building. "You all know me," Mr. Margulies told the crowd, "Iím not a landlord, Iím a social worker."

A not-for-profit social services agency, with an office provided rent-free by the management of the Hotel, served as a relocation resource, assisting the elderly and disabled tenants in the ongoing move to smaller and more expensive hotel rooms. Preferences were sometimes made available for admission to local nursing homes, where some of the residents tended to shout all night.

Once vacated, the Towers was converted to a luxury condominium.

Nowhere were thug tactics more abused than at Midwood Gardens in Borough Park, where, at the end of the decade, developers succeeded in removing all but seventeen of the seven hundred rent regulated families in less than two years. More than fifty incendiary fires were set, thugs were moved in, green card panic was set loose, windows were smashed, and the boiler room was flooded in a terror campaign managed by a relocation specialist brought in from the Middle East. Local politicians and the neighborhood community development agency, which had a contract to market the developed units, fully supported the developers. To clean out the last seventeen holdouts, the developers hired as their attorney the Secretary of the Kings County Democratic Party, who succeeded for years in tying up efforts to restore even minimal housing standards.

Although the shut-off of essential services was a crime, the criminal court judges felt they had more important problems to deal with and the average fine for a violation was less than ten dollars.

Tenants could complain about harassment at the in-person criminal complaint part on Pennsylvania Avenue in East Brooklyn but few cases were processed beyond the mediation stage. Harassment is hard to prove. Only on Columbo does the wealthy businessman commit the crime himself. In real life, there are seven degrees of separation between the teenage drug addict that gets paid $30 by the superís third cousin to light a fire. Hard to prove, but easy to do. And inexpensive.

The City office responsible for dealing with harassment, the Office of Rent Control, was unable to handle the flood of complaints. The Chief of the Enforcement Bureau, who had an Edward G. Robinson persona, would often deliver a tough speech to the owners and their attorneys before a case began its labyrinthine trail through the agency, which was preoccupied with processing rent increases and had little time or personnel to prosecute harassment.

Years later the "Chief" was indicted and pleaded guilty to taking bribes from owners. Denying that he had done anything wrong, he explained to me. "Steve, it was like a ĎBí movie. I woke up. There was a gun in my hand - and a body on the floor." In most cases, the system choked off serious enforcement efforts with no need for bribery.

Lawsuits by the tenants sometimes resulted in substantial verdicts against the owners for intentional infliction of emotional anguish and punitive damages, but almost all of them were reversed by appellate courts on technicalities or drawn through the prolonged agony of litigation so that some appeals are still pending today, twenty years later, and the victorious tenants have failed to see a nickel in recovery.

In 1979, in the landmark case of Notre Dame v. Miller Manhattan Housing Court Judge Harriet George, noting that "too often today an empty building is economically more advantageous to its owners," refused to allow the permanent eviction of the tenants of one SRO, emptied by a fire. But for the most part the Courts openly tolerated harassment and did little or nothing to stop it.

Today, with federally funded legal services barely a shadow of its former strength, and with the Division of Housing & Community Renewal, the Attorney Generalís office, and the City of New York all in the hands of the party about to unleash the new nightmare, the prospects for any serious efforts to halt the coming harassment seem remote.

In the 1970's, many heros of the tenant movement risked their lives refusing to submit to the open season on low income tenants that was announced with the passage of the vacancy decontrol law. In 1974, after the Stein Commissionís investigation unveiled the nightmare, a Republican legislature and governor passed a law appropriately called the Emergency Tenantís Protection Act. Today, Andrew Stein wonders whether their conclusions were correct. From the standpoint of humanity, yes. From his current perspective as a businessman, with an eye on the bottom line, perhaps not.

Senator Bruno said recently that if even one landlord is put in jail, the law will be a success.

Cardinal OíConnor, courageously, and against the financial interests of the Catholic Church as a major landowner, has called for a halt to plans to change the rent laws until a more thoughtful and considered look at the question can be accomplished.

There is still time to stop this madness.

June 12, 1997
Steve Dobkin