N.Y. Rent Plan Is Criticized by Prosecutors

New York Times, June 6, 1997

NEW YORK -- The district attorneys of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn have joined forces against a fundamental element of the Republican plans to phase out the state's rent protections, warning that a proposal to end rent regulations when apartments become vacant would encourage criminal harassment of tenants by landlords.

Two of the prosecutors, representing Brooklyn and Queens, also predicted that imposing criminal penalties more frequently on harassment cases, as Gov. George Pataki has proposed, would flood the already overburdened criminal justice system. The two said that as in the past, the criminal courts would have great difficulty dealing with such cases, which tend to involve subtle or hard-to-prove charges of harassment.

"How would you prove that the water was turned off in the middle of the night on purpose?" asked Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. "How would you prove that someone was sending prostitutes in to frighten little children so families would move out? These kinds of cases would be very hard to investigate and prosecute."

With 10 days left before rent controls expire, the governor and state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, both Republicans, are promoting plans to end rent regulations for apartments when they become vacant, a policy known as vacancy decontrol, which would end all controls slowly as tenants move out or die.

Tenant advocates have warned that that the plan would encourage landlords to try to drum current tenants out of their apartments so they could raise rents to market levels, prompting the Republicans to propose stiff anti-harassment penalties.

Hynes, as well as District Attorneys Robert Morgenthau of Manhattan and Richard Brown of Queens, said they agreed with that position. Though each of the three is also a Democratic politician, their arguments carry additional weight, because it would be their offices that would have to prosecute the anti-harassment cases.

Morgenthau, who prosecuted dozens of cases during the tight real estate market in the early 1980s in which landlords hired professional "vacaters" to force tenants out, said vacancy decontrol would provide an irresistible opening for some landlords.

"We are concerned that if you give corrupt landlords an incentive to get people out because of decontrol, they will go back to the professional goon sqauds," Morgenthau said.

Zenia Mucha, Pataki's communications director, said she found it "incredible that anyone would criticize the fact that we've increased penalties for tenant harassment."

"I think most people, if they looked at this objectively, would be able to see that increasing penalties would act as a deterrent and would make it easier for the DAs to prosecute these cases," she said. She contended that the three prosecutors were "not looking at this from a factual perspective but from a political one."

In presenting his proposal for vacancy decontrol in mid-May, Pataki acknowledged the possibility of increased harassment, and he proposed that penalties for the most serious cases -- like when heat or water are cut off or violence is threatened -- be increased to felonies, carrying the possibility of four and seven years in jail respectively.

Since that time, the governor has been criticized publicly by tenants groups and privately by prosecutors for failing to say how he would empower law-enforcement officials and courts to deal with the likely influx of harassment cases.

During a visit to a center for the elderly in Brooklyn on Monday, the governor said he would create a special division within the state attorney general's office to investigate harassment "so that tenant complaints would be given priority and landlords would know that."

But minutes later, the governor declined to say how much money he would pledge to create a special office or to help district attorneys. "Let's pass the law first," Pataki said.

Thursday, Brown and Hynes complained that even with more funds, the criminal courts would probably prove to be a poor forum for handling cases traditionally handled in Housing Court. "What they'd have to do is start to rearrange priorities," Brown said. "And with as many serious and violent crimes as they have to deal with, that probably would not happen, and these cases would fall by the wayside."

Hynes said that all three prosecutors were dismayed that they were not consulted by the governor as he put together his anti-harassment plan, even though their offices would feel the brunt of the effects. Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens have nearly 900,000 of the 1,085,323 rent-regulated apartments in the city.

The prosecutors' focus on the harassment issue highlights an all-but-overlooked side of the emotional battle over rent regulations. While attention has long been on whether rents will skyrocket, both tenants and landlords are equally concerned with the fate of the other protections -- against harassment, eviction or the denial of a lease -- that are the underpinning of rent regulations.

Pataki's proposal to combat harassment angered both sides. Landlords complained that current laws protecting tenants are already drastically skewed against them and threatening even stiffer penalties in harassment cases was unfair.

They further claim that there are hundreds of cases in which laws now on the books allow "professional tenants" -- their phrase for litigious renters -- to virtually commandeer buildings and go months or years without paying rent.

But many tenants consider the laws a birthright and assert that vacancy decontrol or other weakening of the laws would make it much easier for landlords to force them out for a variety of reasons, like more money or simply because they disliked the tenant.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company