Prosecuting Bad Landlords

Opinion, by By GOV. GEORGE E. PATAKI
Daily News, June 8, 1997
As part of my plan to save rent control protection for all New York tenants except the few wealthiest renters, I have proposed the toughest laws in the nation to protect tenants from dishonest landlords.

Tenant harassment is wrong. It should not and will not be tolerated. Threatening the security of a person's home is a serious crime, and it should be taken seriously by all of us, including those charged with prosecuting the law.

I have proposed a three-pronged approach to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords who attempt to push tenants out of their apartments or gouge them for excessive rent.

These proposals are included in my plan to save rent control, which will insure that 99% of all tenants can keep their apartments for the rest of their lives, while protecting their right to turn their apartments over to a family member or other loved one.

My tough new criminal and civil penalties will also send a clear message to greedy landlords: Harass your tenants, and you will pay a price that far exceeds the few extra dollars you may collect from a rent increase.

First, I want to hit dishonest landlords in their wallets. My plan calls for doubling the maximum civil penalty for harassing tenants, increasing the top penalty to $10,000 per violation. In addition, my plan will make it easier to prosecute dishonest landlords by creating for the first time the new crime of tenant harassment under state penal law.

Currently, there is a maze of ill-suited enforcement regulations that can hamper efforts to crack down on dishonest landlords and protect tenants. These regulations force prosecutors to bring charges that don't really fit the crime, hurting their chances for success and discouraging them from trying again. My plan cuts through the red tape and provides new weapons that will allow prosecutors to lock up dishonest landlords.

The maximum criminal penalty now is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum of one year in jail. That is the minimum term under my plan.

Under the new criminal penalties:

An owner who harasses, intimidates or threatens a rent-regulated tenant would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor and face up to one year in jail if convicted;

If the harassment interferes with the delivery of any service that affects the health and safety of a building resident such as cutting off heat or water the owner would be guilty of a Class E felony, which carries a maximum penalty of four years in state prison;

If the harassment involves the threat of violence, the crime would be a Class E felony. In cases of violence or if the owner is a repeat offender convicted of a second offense within 10 years of the first conviction, the crime would be elevated to a Class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

My crackdown on dishonest landlords includes stronger enforcement and penalties for owners who engage in rent gouging by authorizing the attorney general to prosecute these crimes also. Civil penalties against rent gouging also will be strengthened under my proposal.

This attack on dishonest landlords demonstrates my commitment to protect tenants and treats tenant harassment as the serious crime that it is. Local prosecutors must demonstrate their commitment by supporting my rent plan and then by vigorously prosecuting dishonest landlords. No criminal prosecution is easy, but that is no reason not to go after criminals.

The right to live in peace in your own home is fundamental to the American way of life. No one should suffer the indignity of being illegally forced out of their home. My plan will make those guilty of these grievous crimes suffer mightily.