In 2017, Gothamist wrote about conditions at 385 Warwick Street, which caused problems for a years-long succession of tenants. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
New York is close to enacting new protections for rent-regulated tenants by making it easier for prosecutors to hold landlords criminally accountable for harassment.
On Wednesday, the State Senate approved the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, a bill that came out of the Attorney General’s office and which was sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Joseph Lentol. The proposal is part of a package of bills that state lawmakers are expected to tackle this year that would add stronger protections for renters.
The bill now awaits the approval of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who can sign it into law.
Asked if Cuomo would sign the bill, spokesman Tyrone Stevens said in a statement, “Governor Cuomo has zero tolerance for tenant abuse of any kind, and that’s why he led the charge and created the Tenant Protection Unit in 2012, which has been on the front lines in the fight against unscrupulous landlords. Preserving affordable housing and providing relief to tenants are critical priorities for this state, and our office will review this bill.”
According to an analysis of state criminal justice data by the Attorney General, not a single landlord in New York has ever been convicted of the crime of harassing a rent-regulated tenant. Lawmakers contend the lack of convictions reflects the current harassment standard, where a prosecutor must prove that the landlord intended not only to force a tenant out but also to cause a physical injury sustained by the tenant.
The proposed law, which was drafted with the help of the AG’s office, would make commonly reported harassment tactics such as turning off heat and hot water, exposing tenants to hazardous materials and creating uninhabitable conditions, subject to prosecutions. Under the bill, such actions could fall under a new class A misdemeanor, which would carry a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail.
“It helps the legal definition match the reality of what people experience,” said Emily Goldstein, director of organizing and advocacy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.
She added that a state-wide law would help often under-looked rent-regulated tenants in places outside of New York City, such as Long Island and Westchester County.
Over the last few years, with the help of advocacy groups, New York City has developed a fairly extensive definition of landlord harassment that includes the actions specified in the state bill.
But the city’s harassment cases are typically mediated in housing court. The proposed state law would make landlord harassment potentially criminal conduct, adding a new level of deterrence, Goldstein said.
Tenants would now have a “wider variety of legal options that may suit their needs,” she said.
There is not a lot of data on tenant harassment in New York City, according to Oksana Mironova, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society of New York. In 2017, the CSS introduced a question about harassment in their annual survey of low-income residents in New York City. The group found that 41 percent of low-income renters experienced at least one type of harassment.
In a press release, Senator Krueger said, “I urge the Governor to sign this bill so that rent-regulated New Yorkers can live free of the fear of harassment from their landlords.”
In a statement, Attorney General Letitia James said, “The landlords behind these serious acts of tenant harassment have been able to evade justice because the standard for proving criminal culpability has been impossibly high—today that begins to change. This bill will go a long way in protecting our most vulnerable tenants by changing the legal standard of harassment and allowing prosecutors to finally pursue these acts that have hurt countless New Yorkers.”