Law and Disorder: Tenant Trouble Lurks as Rent Clock Ticks

by J. A. Lobbia
Village Voice, June 11, 1997
Rent Events, June 11-18

Get back on the bus: If the rent battle in Albany seems remote, here's a chance to make it feel up-close and personal: tenants will bus back up to Albany, as they did in May, to lobby legislators and possibly watch as state senators cast a crucial vote on Joe Bruno's vacancy decontrol bill on Wednesday, June 11. Bear in mind that Albany is a city of great intrigue, and Bruno may not hold the vote on June 11, but lobbying will go on regardless. For the latest information and reservations, call 695-8922, ext. 329.

Thursday June 12: Picket Pataki outside the Real Estate Board of New York. Assemble at REBNY offices, 12 East 41st Street, at 4:30 p.m.

Sunday June 15: This is D-day for the rent laws: join a candlelight vigil at Pataki's midtown office where you can wish him a happy Father's Day for his role in the assault on families across the state. 633 Third Avenue at 41st Street, 8:30 p.m. to midnight.

Monday June 16: If you wake up and find the rent laws gone, take your pick of two protests: in Albany, from noon to 1:30 p.m., at the Governor's Mansion, or from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at his midtown office. Call 695-8922, ext. 392, for information.

Landlords at one of Manhattan's most coveted affordable apartment complexes are hoarding nearly 100 units in anticipation of the rent laws expiring, according to documents obtained by the Voice. Records show that since April, apartments that became vacant at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on Manhattan's East Side have remained unrented. Employees say Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which owns the 11,251-apartment complex where about 25,000 rent-stabilized tenants live, is waiting to see what happens with the rent stabilization laws, which expire Sunday at midnight.

According to internal documents from both complexes, at least 75 apartments sit idle, while waiting lists are so full that applicants are told they cannot expect a one-bedroom in Stuy Town for four to six years, and must wait seven years for two-bedroom units. Applications are not even being taken for Peter Cooper Village. But they are being accepted for Stuy Town--provided a nonrefundable, $75 fee is paid.

Calls to Stuyvesant Town and Cooper Village were referred to Met Life; officials there could not be reached at press time.

Met Life built Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village, which stretch from First Avenue to Avenue C and from 14th Street to 23th Street, in 1943. They are considered plum because rent is affordable and the buildings are in fairly decent shape. One-bedrooms in Stuy Town rent for $960 a month; two-bedrooms for $1245. The internal records show that in Stuy Town, most of the vacant, unrented apartments are one-bedrooms. In Peter Cooper Village, there are only nine vacant units, most one-bedrooms. Most apartments were vacated after a tenant died or was evicted for having an illegal sublet.

The records show that as apartments became vacant in January, February, and March, they were quickly rented. Those that became vacant since then have remained so.

Warehousing is being informally reported citywide, as landlords position themselves to cash in on the possible expiration of rent laws, even if the lapse is only temporary. In fact, as the rent laws creep toward expiration, a group of real estate moguls has set up a committee to police their own industry, anticipating confusion and possible abuse by landlords should the laws lapse. The committee, whose members include tycoons Lew Rudin, Bernie Mendik, and Burton Resnick, was formed after a Manhattan landlord jumped the gun in May and told a tenant to expect a 377 per cent rent hike.

''Obviously there will be some problems from landlords and tenants if the laws expire,'' says Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which, along with other landlord groups, formed the committee. ''The idea is to provide some direction and guidance in terms of what might happen if the laws expire, and I think they will, at least temporarily.''

Spinola's prediction will come true if the Democratic assembly and the Republican senate don't find a solution by midnight Sunday. At press time, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver was still resisting the rent scheme of Republican governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who are both calling for vacancy decontrol.

The committee will have no legal authority. ''What we have mainly is the power of persuasion,'' says Spinola. ''When you have somebody as recognized as Lew Rudin give somebody a call, it is within reason to think that people are willing to respond. Same thing with Bernie Mendik or Bert Resnick.'' Rudin and Mendik are among top donors to politicians who they hoped would end or alter rent laws.

The REBNY plan comes as three other prominent New Yorkers cast serious doubt on Pataki's and Bruno's assurances that stiff penalties will deter landlords from harassing tenants in hopes of emptying regulated apartments. Last week, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes, and Queens prosecutor Richard Brown said the governor's vacancy decontrol scheme goes a long way toward tempting landlords to menace tenants into vacating apartments, but falls far short of realistically discouraging such behavior.

The landlords that prosecutors are most worried about are not likely to be the type who would be in Rudin, Mendik, or Resnick's Rolodexes. In criticizing Pataki's plan, Morgenthau recalled a band of rogue owners who, in the mid '80s, menaced single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel tenants by moving in criminals, starting fires and floods in apartments, and threatening violence in hopes that tenants would move out and pave the way for co-op conversions. Hynes invoked Leonard Spodek, dubbed the ''Dracula landlord'' by his tenants, and Samuel Popack, who was convicted of criminal contempt for failing to repair his Crown Heights properties.

''It's palpably clear to us from experience that it ain't as simple as suggested,'' Hynes told the Voice. ''Prosecuting harassment is fundamentally a question of proof. How do I prove that the person urinating on the doorstep of a victim was sent there by a landlord?''

Vacancy decontrol threatens to compound an already profound problem: even now, with limits on how much a landlord can charge when an apartment turns over, tenants who are harassed face tremendous obstacles to recourse. Without such limits, harassment could skyrocket. ''In the mid '80s, we were dealing primarily with SROs being converted to co-ops,'' says Steve Fishner, executive assistant D.A. in Morgenthau's office. ''With vacancy decontrol, it would be a much larger matter because we're talking about potentially any rent-stabilized or -controlled apartments. We don't have anything approaching the resources to deal with that.''

The venues available to tenants alleging harassment are limited and faulty. The most common approach is to file a complaint with the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees the rent laws, and which is famously inefficient. ''I discourage people from going to DHCR because I think it's a waste of their time,'' says Sam Himmelstein, a private tenant attorney. ''I advise it only in the most serious of cases.''

Himmelstein thought he had a case too egregious even for DHCR to refuse when, last fall, a rent-regulated tenant who lived on West 78th Street came to him for help. The tenant, who asked the Voice for anonymity, alleged that his landlord, Peter Budakian, had repeatedly entered his apartment and rifled through papers. When Budakian left a note saying ''I wish you would move out. You can afford it, can't you?,'' the tenant's suspicions seemed confirmed. He made a formal complaint to DHCR with Himmelstein's help.

Budakian told DHCR he had entered the apartment only to make repairs. As for the allegations of peeking at his tenant's papers, Budakian replied: ''If I were responsible for this I certainly would have the good sense to leave things as they were.''

The tenant also complained that Budakian called a guest a ''whore'' and was otherwise verbally abusive. Budakian did not directly respond to those comments in DHCR papers. Called for comment by the Voice, the landlord simply said, ''I don't answer any questions over the telephone to strangers. Goodbye.''

Himmelstein claims Budakian threw a wrench at a friend visiting the tenant. At a DHCR conference on the case, the hearing officer pulled Himmelstein aside and dismissed the tool toss as ''a cultural difference.''

In February, the tenant and Budakian signed a settlement spelling out terms for the landlord entering the apartment. But most tenants who complain to DHCR don't end up with an outcome as satisfying. A recent City Limits magazine article by Glenn Thrush and Kathleen McGowan analyzed DHCR data and found that in 1993, there were 1400 harassment claims pending; by the end of 1996, there were only 500. ''People must be happy with their landlords,'' explained DHCR spokesperson Donna Ackerman. To the contrary, tenant lawyers and advocates citywide echo Himmelstein's concern: the agency is useless to rely on. DHCR did not return repeated calls for this story.

Besides DHCR, city police are supposed to help tenants when they are illegally locked out of an apartment. But tenant lawyers say the police routinely do not enforce the law. ''If you call the cops when you've been locked out, they'll tell you to go to landlord-tenant court,'' says Ken Rosenfeld, a lawyer at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Association and a tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board. ''The fact is, if you are illegally locked out, the police can arrest the landlord on a misdemeanor. But they get called hundreds of times a year and I think they lock people up never.'' NYPD's press office did not respond to calls about the lock-out law.

Tenant advocates are reporting that landlords are already chomping at the bit to cash in on a deregulated market. Last week, the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition sent out press releases reporting that some landlords were refusing to offer renewal leases. At the Gay Men's Health Crisis, clients are calling in with the same problem.

''We're hearing it almost every day: landlords won't renew leases because they want to see if there are going to be rent laws,'' says staff attorney Dawn Kelly. ''I have a case where they cashed the new security deposit in early May, but won't give the renewal lease. They're banking that the laws will go away and they can evict tenants. People are just petrified.''

Research: Rachel Malamud