It Won't Stop The Harassment

Opinion, by CHARLES J. HYNES
Brooklyn District Attorney
Daily News, June 8, 1997
The June 15th expiration of rent regulations has created a climate of fear among millions of tenants in New York City and the suburbs, particularly among senior citizens, many of them on fixed incomes.

Gov. Pataki's compromise proposal to end this impending crisis includes a provision for vacancy decontrol. This would permit current tenants to remain protected until they vacate the apartment voluntarily or die. The plan also envisions stiff civil and criminal penalties for tenant harassment to prevent landlords from trying to force tenants out of regulated apartments.

In my view, the enactment of more severe penalties would not deter unscrupulous landlords from trying to drive tenants out of apartments. Instead, it probably would result in the filing of many new cases in our already overburdened criminal courts. These would be time-consuming cases that would require painstaking pre-trial preparation involving criminal charges that ultimately would be very difficult to prove.

My view is shared by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the dean of district attorneys in New York, and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, president-elect of the New York State District Attorneys Association.

A decade ago, the Brooklyn district attorney's office brought successful criminal prosecutions against landlords. Two landlords were convicted of charges they had violated the New York City housing code by failing to repair their apartment buildings, and of violating city housing department orders by allowing unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

Their tenants had complained about water leaks, exposed electrical wires, interior damage to ceilings and walls, cracked sidewalks and inadequate heat and hot water.

The trial of one defendant, landlord J. Leonard Spodek, took 52 days. The investigation that led to the filing of the criminal charges took about a year. The trial preparation was extensive and involved interviews and testimony of dozens of tenants and city housing inspectors. The burden of proof at trial was demanding proving the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Tougher civil or criminal penalties are unlikely to deter the more subtle and not-so-subtle forms of tenant harassment. These include delaying repairs or improvements, not providing adequate heat or hot water, failing to evict boisterous tenants or permitting drug addicts or prostitutes to congregate on the premises a tactic used by some landlords to clear buildings in Manhattan in the early 1980s. To prove that a landlord has a criminal intent to harm a tenant who is being deprived of adequate heat or hot water is extremely difficult.

That is why making tenant harassment a crime -- a misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class D felony for the second offense to be prosecuted in our criminal courts is just not realistic.

Brooklyn has nearly 300,000 rent-regulated housing units and more senior citizens than any other county in New York. My office currently prosecutes some 85,000 criminal cases each year. Adding tenant harassment cases to this crushing volume would tax the resources of our criminal justice system to its outer limit.

Why rush to judgment? Extend the June 15 deadline. In labor-management contract talks, deadlines often are changed to encourage peaceful and mutually agreeable resolutions.

I believe it would be in the best interest of all New Yorkers for the governor and the Legislature to stop the clock, extend the deadline indefinitely and endeavor to reach a settlement that is fair and just for all.