Why Pataki's Rent Plan Sucks
Will the Governor Push Landlords to Harass Tenants?

by J. A. Lobbia, May 13, 1997 Governor George Pataki pitched his proposal to "save rent control" on Monday. How grim.

Pataki's plan-offered after a months-long standoff between Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans-calls for deregulating tenants who make more than $175,000 a year, and requires tenants who are sued for back rent to post the amount before proceeding in court (see Voice, May 13). But the governor's most treacherous policy would allow vacancy decontrol, which means an apartment could rent for market rate as soon as a tenant moves out or dies.

Vacancy decontrol gives landlords a mighty incentive to cajole, induce, and outright harass tenants out of their homes. While Pataki's press release declared that "no one should suffer the indignity of being illegally forced out of their home," his proposal is likely to result in the very indignity he laments.

Pataki's strategy for discouraging such behavior by making various levels of antagonism criminal is naive at best. Under a new, proposed Pataki-created crime called tenant harassment, landlords who are annoying-which the governor describes as those who, say, menace tenants with knocks at the door, midnight calls, or "noxious odors" -face fines and up to a year in prison. Aggressors who cut off heat, hot water, or electricity or otherwise jeopardize the health or safety of tenants or a building face fines and one to four years in prison. At the top of the goon food chain, landlords who resort to physical violence or who have a prior conviction for tenant intimidation within 10 years face fines and one to seven years. All those sanctions, of course, kick in after a tenant has been harassed.

But what sounds like stiff sanctions are likely to become limp laws. Since 1983, the city itself has required owners of single-room-occupancy hotels to obtain a "certificate of no harassment" before they can demolish or alter an SRO. Ed Koch signed the law, called Local Law 19, after thousands of SRO tenants were harassed out of their homes in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, Local Law 19 provides about as much protection as a chain-link lock on a door.

"Those laws are only as good as the enforcement behind them, and lately, there is a lack of political will," says Karen Stamm of the East Side SRO Law Project. For instance, SRO owner Sam Domb has been accused of doing major demolition to turn an Upper West Side SRO into a tourist-class hotel without obtaining a certificate of no harassment, despite years of testimony from tenants complaining of harassment. The leniency shown to Domb, a top fundraiser for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has been the subject of news articles.

Stamm finds little comfort in the fact that under Pataki's plan, the state would share prosecutorial powers with local district attorneys. "On the occasions when I have tried to take things to the D.A., like massive, building-wide overcharges, they were not interested unless it's a felony. They told me the amounts were too small to prosecute, but for tenants, it was several thousands of dollars. The thing that prevents you, as a tenant, from having a roof over your head might not be attractive for a prosecutor to pursue. We have nothing against the notion of criminal penalties, but it is not a substitute for rent regulation."

At press time, a spokesman for District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said the D.A. had not seen the governor's plan, but would "support legislation that would increase the penalty for landlords who harass tenants."

Indeed, even a state agency charged with investigating complaints of harassment, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, rarely brings a case to prosecution. Stamm, who has worked in SRO housing for 12 years, says only one case she has brought to DHCR was prosecuted. "The truth is, criminal enforcement against a landlord is almost unheard of. And when it happens, it's after the fact." DHCR did not return calls.

Stories of tenant harassment by landlords are legendary in New York City. In 1986, a band of landlords was so egregious, they were convicted on dozens of counts of grand larceny and coercion for harassing tenants out of 20 buildings citywide. Thugs hired by landlords threatened to break the legs of elderly tenants, started fires in apartments, and busted plumbing to cause floods. The goal was to get tenants to move out, in some cases, so the buildings could be converted to co-ops. Such history makes it hard to understand why Pataki would now want to give what some landlords might consider an irresistible inducement to harass tenants.

Under Pataki's proposal, even tenants who leave a regulated apartment without being harassed face the daunting task of finding affordable housing in a decontrolled market. That challenge will greet people who have to move because their family size changes with the addition of children or because an elderly parent has come to live with them, for instance.

In the absence of any compromise coming from the legislature, the governor's plan is truly a defining moment in the ongoing battle over rent regulation. Already, The New York Times is labeling Pataki's proposal "a shift to [the] center," offering a "middle ground" to Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's call to let the laws lapse in two years or-even more extreme-immediately upon their June 15 expiration.

But on Monday, Pataki did nothing less than what his blue-ribbon housing panel advised him to do in December 1994, just a month after he was elected governor: "The administration's goal must be to dismantle a system that does not work by adopting decontrol of all regulated apartments upon vacancy." It also urged mandatory rent deposits from tenants in court.

The governor, who as a state legislator voted regularly to scrap rent laws, is not straying one bit from a script written three years ago. The danger is that tenants who have had a gun to their heads for six months now will mistake a body slam, instead of a bullet, for a favor.