Tenants Find Little Legal Recourse

NY Daily News, June 13, 1997
As he does every day, Julio Muniz arrived ready to wrangle at 9 a.m. yesterday at the stifling basement of the Bronx municipal building where Housing Court hearings have been held for decades.

Muniz staffs a tenant assistance table for the Citywide Task Force on Housing. He has been a tenant advocate for more than 10 years. It runs in the family. His mother was a tenant leader on Woodycrest Ave. in the Bronx.

Muniz' advice is often the only help a tenant gets, since most landlords have lawyers and most tenants don't.

"Every day I see more people finding it hard to make their rent payment," Muniz said. "But vacancy decontrol will make it worse."

With state protection for 2.5 million tenants about to expire, the rent control debate has reached the stage of fantasy and propaganda.

Muniz has heard all the media's familiar tales the Mia Farrows of the city paying ridiculously low rents, the freeloaders milking their landlords and using the courts to live rent-free for years, the poor Latino landlord who owns a small building and is being driven to bankruptcy by low rents.

"I never met a Mia Farrow," Muniz said. "The people I see all the time are like the three elderly sisters who came to court today, Aracely Medina, and Olga and Carmen Aponte. Their apartments are falling apart. The landlord never showed up in court, and now they have to come back here in a few weeks."

Right now, if your family income exceeds $250,000 and your rent reaches $2,000, your landlord can charge whatever he or she wants. Exactly 1,427 rent-stabilized apartments in this city have been decontrolled under the current luxury decontrol law.

Not tens of thousands, not thousands, just 1,427. That's about one city block's worth of apartments.

Another fantasy is that Housing Court is a feeding trough for tenants. Last year, 318,305 actions were filed in the five boroughs by landlords against tenants. Tenants filed only 9,805 cases against landlords. That's 30 landlord cases for every one filed by a tenant, and landlords won more than two-thirds of them.

"Most tenants don't have any faith the courts will help them," Muniz said.

Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki have promised that the state and the courts will get tough on landlords who harass tenants should the Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, achieve vacancy decontrol.

Who are they kidding?

The state has a whole agency to administer rent laws. It's called the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Pataki thinks so much about this agency he hasn't appointed a commissioner to run it since Joe Holland resigned in October in a personal finance scandal.

A few weeks ago State Controller Carl McCall released an audit on how well DHCR is doing its job. It showed that tenant complaints about landlords charging more than the legal rent took 4 1/2 years to resolve, with some dragging on for 12 years.

Even when DHCR finds wrongdoing, landlords don't pay. Tenants are owed more than $69 million in overcharges.

So an agency with no chief, with years of backlogs and with no teeth will guard against an avalanche of new abuses? That's more fantasy and propaganda.

Forget all the side issues about luxury decontrol and succession rights and that rent control could end altogether at 12:01 a.m. Monday. It all boils down to one question: Will the politicians agree to vacancy decontrol? Basically, that will allow landlords to end rent control gradually rather than all at once.

Will 25,000 landlords prevail over 2.5 million tenants?

If they do, it will be tenants like the three elderly sisters on the Grand Concourse who needed Muniz' help, rather than Mia Farrow and her brood.