How NYC Tenants Are Harassed Out of Their Apartments

Tenants and organizers at a rally for housing justice in the Bronx (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Rats left to breed unchecked. Heat and electricity cut off. Landlords demanding to see tenants’ IDs. Those are only a few of the tenant harassment tactics detailed in a new report that chronicles one of New York’s more insidious problems: predatory equity.

As Next City has covered, predatory equity (and the tenant harassment that often accompanies it) tends to follow speculative purchases — i.e., buyers purchasing a building at a price that only makes financial sense if they can bump up rent-controlled units to market rate. Many of the entities that make those deals aren’t local landlords, but companies (Vantage, Ocelot, and Dawney Day, to name a few) that approach the city’s affordable housing stock as an investment opportunity.

It’s unclear exactly what percentage of the cities’ landlords are employing this so-called business strategy, but several organizations, notably the Urban Justice Center and Stabilizing NYC, are trying to bring legislative attention to it and suggest policy fixes. The report, which comes from those two entities, draws on tenant surveys, focus groups and data from the Department of Buildings (DOB), Housing and Preservation Department (HPD) and the eCourts system to paint a picture of exactly what kinds of harassment tenants face, and how they can be empowered to report and resist those tactics. The groups are planning a day of protest in front of several notorious landlords Tuesday.

In collecting data, the groups used the SNYC landlord watch list to identify particularly problematic properties. Brooklyn had the highest portion of surveyed buildings at 43 percent, while the Bronx had the lowest at 12 percent.

(Credit: The Urban Justice Center and Stabilizing NYC)

Predictably, they found that those predatory tactics impact some of New York’s most vulnerable residents. The majority of respondents were people of color, with over half identifying as Latino and more than 20 percent identifying as African-American. About 60 percent of respondents were women and 46 percent reported an annual household income of less than $25,000.

Some of the most common harassment tactics reported include landlords cutting off utilities, sending notices in a language tenants won’t understand and refusing basic repairs (i.e., allowing conditions that include peeling paint, roaches and mold). But quotes from the surveys and focus groups paint a bleaker picture of interactions that are sometimes downright cruel.

“Actually, in my building, my landlord … uses a trick,” one Queens resident said. “You send your rent the first or the second [of the month] and he knows that after the 15th they charge you late charges. So, what he does is, you send him the rent, and he holds it; he doesn’t cash the check, he doesn’t do anything, until after the past due, and then he just tacks on the late fees.”

(Credit: The Urban Justice Center and Stabilizing NYC)

The New York City Council is actively crafting legislation to address this kind of predatory behavior. In August, council passed 18 new tenant protections bills. Later in the year, it passed a “Predatory Equity Bill” instructing the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to create and publish a “Speculation Watch List.” The list will “name buildings bought at prices that indicate a speculative purchase and potentially signal future harassment and displacement of current rent-stabilized tenants, especially those who are low-income,” Oscar Perry Abello wrote for Next City at the time.

The report makes several further policy recommendations. One suggested bill would create a rebuttable presumption regarding tenant harassment for certain buildings. The report also suggests prohibiting landlords from including legal or late fees on a rent bill (instead requiring them to bill separately), and creating a real-time enforcement unit to target buildings where landlords harass tenants — a move that could potentially help address the lag time between when tenants report issues and when the DOB inspects them.

The full report is available here.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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Tags: new york cityaffordable housing