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LOIS WEISS: Punishing All For The Bad Deeds Of The Few

Thanks to a bunch of jerks who should crawl back into the bedbug-filled crevices from whence they came, New York City now has about 20 new laws on its books designed to denigrate building owners and protect tenants from things that go bump in the night.


Signing the bills at an Upper West Side senior center with City Council members and tenant advocates in tow, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a big deal about punishing “unscrupulous landlords.”

After relaying her story, tenant Catalina Hidalgo wept on the sidelines as the mayor praised her for fighting for these bills. But I also had to weep with her as she described the multiple years of living with her kids at 300 Nassau St. in Brooklyn as work on the building was done under permits that said it was vacant, although three families remained.

The construction not only intruded into her apartment, making it unsafe, but created bent sewage pipes, smashed electrical meters and other issues that eventually made it so uninhabitable that the city issued a vacate order.

“The landlords intended to use construction among many other tools to make a family’s life unbearable. Talk about greed, unfettered greed,” de Blasio said. Yep, he said that.

But really, who does this stuff? Hidalgo’s building owners were, as she put it, “the famous Israel brothers.”

Hidalgo and the other two families were finally moved out for a couple of years, but they are now back in their completely renovated, rent-regulated units. She pays rent around $700/month while the rest of the new tenants pay gentrified market rents; the brass ring caught at the end of this bumpy ride.

The owners’ brass ring, however, did not include jail time — this time. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office cut a deal in which the brothers were to pay a combined nearly $250K to victims, set up a $100K fund to cover the tenants’ expenses, perform 500 hours of community service and spend five years on probation for harassing tenants in several Brooklyn buildings.

These bills were also spurred by Steve Croman, who owned 150 buildings and was deemed the “Bernie Madoff of landlords” by the New York State Attorney General. Croman lost his brokerage license, must pay a $5M fine and was ordered to jail for a year. Among his other trespasses, Croman “harassed” tenants to get them to accept buyouts.

Landlords who want to offer some of their tenants tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to leave, or switch them to a nicer unit in another building, now cannot without jumping through hoops. That was included in a recent law against those practices. Now landlords also can’t approach tenant at “unusual hours” without a letter from the tenant saying it’s OK. 

Certainly, to most tenants, city council members and the mayor, it is ALL building owners who harass tenants with construction at all hours of the day and night.

The reality? They want to take your building away from landlords and hand it over to a “third party” vendor — read nonprofit run by city cronies — so the tenants can remain in place with low rents.

And now, through these new laws, the mayor believes the city can take away a landlord's building. Oh, yes. Really.

“Landlords will either have to pay fines and make repairs or turn over to the city to get [in] a responsible [third party, or another owner]," de Blasio said.

This is because under Intro. 931, the Department of Finance can now place a tax lien on buildings with six to 19 apartments if the landlord owes the city $30K in unpaid judgments, or $60K for buildings with 20 or more apartments. Naturally, this bill and others have exceptions for HPD’s own projects and those with HPD loans or agreements.

Did you know that property owners owe the city $900M in unpaid Building Department and Environmental Control Board fines? I’m looking at you, now, owners.

Check out your building’s file and you might find a violation or two still on the books, with fines that have now ballooned because you missed the hearing. 

A statement is now required by all owners of a property about all their properties, so if you have a partner who doesn’t pay his fines, or has many buildings with outstanding fines that all total $25K or more, you are screwed until those are paid.

The Real Estate Board of New York, which opposed most of these bills, said it “recognizes the importance of protecting tenants from improper owner behavior designed to force vacancies.”

But it also warned “the legislation to discourage and penalize such behavior must be narrowly tailored so that only the 'bad actors' are isolated and affected.”

In its own release, the City Council said the bills would:

  1. make it easier to prove harassment in certain cases
  2. prevent landlords from visiting or contacting tenants at odd hours without consent
  3. allow victims of harassment to recover damages and reasonable attorney fees.

But as REBNY pointed out, there is no provision to recoup the building owners’ attorney fees should the charges be tossed. There are bills that require more signage both to state the occupancy status of buildings when work is underway and to provide a “Safe Construction Bill of Rights” during construction.

Another bill requires a Tenant Advocate within the Department of Buildings, which is a huge dis for the elected Public Advocate, who should be the one handling all taxpayer and resident complaints.

Bills that passed also included Intro. 1676, which increases the allowed income for both the Senior Citizen Homeowner’s Exemption and Disabled Homeowner’s Exemption property tax exemptions from $37,400 to $58,400 so those with larger Social Security checks have a better chance of remaining in their homes.

Remember: as a provider, builder and rehabber of housing, you could be considered a capitalist enemy of the people and politicians, no matter that the real estate industry provides the largest portion of the cash that the city spends so freely.

Lois Weiss is a Bisnow featured columnist as well as a real estate reporter for the New York Post. She has covered New York City real estate for more than two decades and is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.