Clock Ticks In Rent War
Fights in Housing Court

By MICHAEL FINNEGAN
Daily News Albany Bureau

A Brooklyn tenant yelling at her landlord briefly drowned out the noise in a packed Housing Court hallway.

"You don't do a damn thing about the building!" the woman hollered.

Crowds of other tenants and landlords, deep in their own eviction and rent disputes, looked up and watched wide-eyed as the day's biggest blowup erupted.

Then they resumed individual skirmishes on the front line in the city's never-ending housing wars.

As the clock ticks down to the threatened June 15 expiration of the state laws that limit rent hikes for more than 2 million tenants, the Housing Court struggles could soon become more intense and numerous.

State limits on rent hikes are not the only tenant protections endangered by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's drive to scrap rent laws in eight weeks unless state leaders agree to elimination over two or four years.

Also threatened is the automatic right to lease renewals for tenants of 1.1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the city and tens of thousands of units in Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties.

Eliminate that right, tenant leaders warn, and city housing courts will be flooded with apartment dwellers battling eviction and fighting landlords who refuse to improve building conditions as a tactic to force renters out.

"The caseloads would go through the roof," said Scott Sommer, chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, voicing a prediction that is challenged by landlords. "There would be more people down here getting evicted, and there would be less people could do."

An informal Daily News survey of city housing courts last week found the heavy personal stake on both sides. In Brooklyn, for instance, the court was filled with hundreds of tenants and landlords locked in eviction battles and fights over living conditions.

Tenise Islar, 25, who shares a Crown Heights studio with her three young children, said mice have jumped on her bed, her building staircase is broken and a gaping hole in her ceiling has exposed her family to bad weather.

"Last winter I had snow coming down and rain," Islar said. "I had to put pots down on the floor."

She refused to pay her $476 monthly rent, then won a court-approved settlement ordering her landlord to make repairs in return for the back rent. "If he wants the rent, he's got to fix this," she said.

Her landlord could not be reached for comment. But other owners of rental buildings said tenants could continue to battle housing violations in court without fear of eviction, even without the requirement for automatic lease renewals.

Flatbush landlord Bill Punch argues that the renewal law gives tenants an unfair legal edge and "forces you to keep bad tenants."

"You can't get divorced from a tenant," Punch said. "You should have a right to."

Landlord attorney Harvey Lustig said eliminating the renewal law "would probably encourage better relations between landlords and tenants," because "there would be no artificial restraint on a landlord's ability to say, 'I don't want you as a tenant.' "

Bruno (R-Rensselaer) has sided with the landlords, saying leases should be treated as contracts with a "termination date."

"It's not a lifetime contract unless you're agreeable to signing a lifetime contract," Bruno said. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said Silver will seek to preserve lease renewal protections.

Original Story Date: 042197
Original Story Section: City Central