No Place Like Home:
Tenant Harassment in New York City
On a Tuesday evening late in June 2016, Michelle Richards returned from Bible study to her home in the Bronx and found the door to her bedroom hammered off its hinges. Just days earlier, Richards, 46, had told her landlord she would take him to court if he sought to evict her for a late rent payment.
Richards, a case manager for the mentally disabled, had lived at 1698 Grand Avenue, a brick two-story rooming house, for over five years. After being forced to leave her home, Richards’ displacement spiraled into a saga of alleged harassment, homelessness and a prolonged effort to resolve her crisis in housing court. Her situation is familiar to tenant advocates who say it is representative of the harassment and legal difficulties that plague many New Yorkers every year.
When tenants like Richards file a claim of harassment, the odds of winning the claim are overwhelmingly poor. From September 2013 to May 2016, there were a total of 1,503 claims of harassment or claims of harassment and violations submitted to New York City Housing Court. Of those 1,503 claims, only 45 cases resulted in a judgment with a finding of harassment committed by a landlord, according to data from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Those 45 cases represent only three percent of the total number of claims submitted by tenants.
Days after her landlord Eon Mathieson allegedly removed her door, the destruction escalated. As described in a court affidavit, while Richards was at work, the room’s electrical sockets were destroyed. A few days later, both her windows were removed from their frames. In response to the destruction, Richards filed a Housing Part (HP) action—a tenant-initiated case to seek repairs for housing violations—in Bronx Housing Court on July 13, 2016. Six days later, Richards returned home to find her ceiling destroyed, torn apart by what she believes was Mathieson’s sledgehammer. Plaster was strewn across her bed and her belongings were covered in dust. Her room was destroyed.
Mathieson declined three requests for interviews.
Richards moved in with friends in Co-op City while trying to resolve her court case. On July 25, 2016, after Mathieson failed to appear for his court appearance, the court ordered him to correct all outstanding violations within 90 days, according to court papers. At the end of August 2016, Richards returned to 1698 Grand Ave., but found her room boarded up and posted with an eviction notice. On August 22, her belongings were removed from her room—including over $10,000 worth of clothing, appliances and her engagement ring—and thrown under a tarp in a gated outdoor area. They have sat there locked and inaccessible to Richards and deteriorating ever since.
“To see my things sitting outside, the elements destroying them, cats pissing on them, rodents running through them, is terrible,” she said. “This is not stuff I picked off the street. This is stuff I worked hard for. I feel like a part of me is missing.”
Mathieson continued to defy court orders until April 26 of the following year when he finally agreed to a settlement with Richards. Under the settlement, Richards was granted access to her home on May 1, 2017, and entered an agreement with Mathieson to pay $100 per week in rent, according to court documents.
It took Richards nearly a year to return to her home and still the battle over the damage to her belongings continues. After five adjournments, Richards and Mathieson are scheduled to appear in Bronx Supreme Court on January 26, 2018. She has no guarantee her case will be resolved on that date.
Housing Court records and interviews with housing attorneys, advocates, and tenants reveal that residents across New York City—particularly those living in rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments—are subject to concerted, persistent harassment at the hands of landlords determined to replace them with higher-rent paying tenants, or tenants who will remain compliant in response to the landlords’ negligence or illegal actions. Laws intended to protect tenants have fallen short, and tenants have had little to gain by seeking redress in city housing courts.
In neighborhoods impacted by rising rents and gentrification and development—the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Harlem and the South Bronx, among others—residents are experiencing abuse intended to drive them out. Rapidly increasing property values and soaring rents create the motivation and opportunity for landlords use tenant harassment to cash in on the booming market by kicking out long-term tenants and selling or developing their properties, or by replacing existing tenants paying low rents with affluent newcomers who can afford high rents.
According to interviews with housing attorneys and residents, tenants are subjected to persistent, targeted offers to buy them out of their leases; deprived of heat, hot water, gas, and electricity for days, weeks, and even months; subjected to onerous, and often baseless, legal summons; and, exposed to illegal renovations that jeopardize the stability of their dwellings and threaten their health.
Housing organizers in New York City cite as many as a hundred buildings in their neighborhoods where residents are without gas, lacking consistent heat and hot water, bombarded with legal cases, or hounded with buyout offers that are far less than the value of their property.
With the cost of housing spiraling upwards, eviction pushes many into homelessness. The Coalition for the Homeless has found that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing. As of October 2017, a Coalition for the Homeless survey found there were 62,963 homeless people living in the New York City shelter system, the highest number ever recorded.
The Tenant Protection Act, a New York City law enacted in March of 2008, states that harassment may include “the express or implied threat or use of force; repeated interruptions or discontinuances of essential services such as heat, hot water, gas and electricity; baseless or frivolous court proceedings; the removal of possessions; removing, obstructing or locking a door; and other acts that may disturb the comfort, peace and quiet of a lawful resident.”
Although tenant harassment is illegal in New York City, tenant advocates and housing attorneys think that the penalties imposed by the New York City Housing Court have been an ineffective remedy for tenants and insufficient deterrent against landlords who stand to gain huge sums from deregulating apartments. Landlords have often been slapped with little to no fines—as little as $250 in some cases—for their efforts to force tenants out.
To prove a harassment claim and succeed at trial, tenants must present a thoroughly documented history of violations or acts of harassment. For example, proving that repeated interruptions or discontinuances of service—a common deprivation that often results in tenants going months without heat or gas—constitute harassment requires substantial documentation in the form of 311 complaints, letters to the landlord and HPD inspections that validate tenant allegations.
“It is very difficult to prove that it’s not a matter of the landlord being negligent and not maintaining the boiler or of getting it serviced often enough,” said Jennifer Rozen, a partner at the tenant’s rights firm Fishman Rozen LLP. “It’s actually harassment, and someone is going down there and physically turning it off and then turning it back on. It would take a lot of resources and time and energy to prove that sort of thing.”
The penalty awarded in successful findings of harassment is $2,500, according to HPD harassment records. The penalty is collected by the City as a fine for violations of the act. Tenants receive no financial benefit, but must often bear the loss of income that results from taking days off to attend hearings and the expense of childcare arrangements. Consequently, many housing attorneys see little value in pursuing a harassment case.
“The harassment law for us is pretty meaningless,” Rozen said. “The problem is it’s not a tool that actually helps tenants in the long run. The reality is, it’s not serving as a deterrent.”
At 1113 Jefferson Avenue, a three-story, multi-family dwelling in Bushwick occupied by several Mexican and Central American immigrant families, residents have been fighting to hang on to their apartments since their building changed ownership in May 2016.
The neighborhood of established Dominican and Puerto Rican families and recent immigrants from Central and South America has given way to affluent millennials and an artist class priced out of nearby Williamsburg. Cafes and juice bars have replaced bodegas and taco shops, and galleries and yoga studios have moved into vacant warehouses. As developers rushed to cash in, gigantic lofts and condos rose among the neighborhood’s row houses, putting long-term residents like those at 1113 Jefferson Avenue at risk of displacement.
“The new landlord came and said that he bought the building and we need to move out,” said Teresa Ramirez, 40, through an interpreter. “He offered us $5,000 or said he would take us to court and ruin our record.”
Their landlord, Asher Alon, filed an eviction case in June 2016 against three tenants of the building, including Ramirez and Patricia Ayestas, 33. In his court papers, Alon alleges that the building is no longer subject to rent stabilization—a housing policy in New York City that establishes fixed rates for rent increases and entitles tenants to renew their leases—because there are only four units in the building rather than the six required by law.
Alon said in a brief phone conversation that the tenants he sought to evict had not paid rent, and he maintained that the building was eligible for deregulation. He refused to discuss the case further.
Weeks after Alon assumed ownership, he turned off the gas, said Ryan Napoli, an attorney with the nonprofit group Make the Road New York, who represents the residents of 1113 Jefferson Avenue. According to Napoli, Alon claimed that he was unaware he needed to pay a utility bill. Residents of the building said that for more than three weeks they were without hot water, forced to sponge bathe their children and to eat take-out food.
Napoli captured the “anything goes” mentality of landlords engaged in harassment, when he described a conversation he had with a landlord in Housing Court. “(The landlord) said to me, ‘I own over 100 apartments. I know how this works,’” Napoli recalled. “‘One way or another, I'm gonna get them out.’”
Napoli stated in court papers that Alon paid them to make life miserable for the existing residents. The new tenants told residents that they were working for or had an arrangement with the landlord in exchange for their disruptive behavior.
They made life hell from their shared apartment on the first floor, residents said in interviews. An incessant plume of marijuana smoke billowed from their apartment or they smoked openly in the hallway. Rap music blasted from dusk till dawn, sending tremors through the building as a steady stream of strangers lingered on the stoop or dropped in throughout the night. Two pit bulls lurked in the hallways and lived in the basement, barking through the night just a few feet from Ramirez’ front door. The disturbance they caused persisted for over a month.
“It’s very hard to live with the stress of not knowing what’s going to happen in court and having to deal with this day after day,” said Ramirez, the mother of three young children. “With all the noise, my kids weren’t sleeping well. They were scared.”
Several residents said they received calls from concerned teachers who observed that their children were falling asleep in school or smelled like they hadn’t bathed in days after water to the building was shut off. The chaos subsided after the disruptive tenants left, but Alon’s offers to buy the tenants out kept coming. After a year and a half of litigation, their eligibility for rent stabilization is still unresolved and they are still under the threat of eviction. The case will be heard again in Brooklyn Housing Court on February 6, 2018.
“If we do have to leave, where are we gonna go?” said resident Patricia Ayestas, 33, who estimated that 80 percent of her neighbors on Jefferson Avenue had relocated since she moved in eight years ago. “Our kids’ schools are here. There’s nowhere affordable around here. We would have to go far away where we don’t know anybody.”
Richards, Ramirez, and other tenants seeking recourse from harassment turn to New York City Housing Court. This Court, established in 1973, is the largest of its kind in the country, with a courthouse in each borough and additional community courts in Harlem and Red Hook. The 50 judges have presided over an average of 350,000 filings a year for the past 20 years, according to court statistics.
In 2015, there were 203,119 nonpayment cases filed in New York City Housing Court, according to Housing Court data. There were also 31,151 residential eviction proceedings filed by landlords for some reason other than nonpayment. That same year there were 6,802 tenant initiated Housing Part (HP) actions, 5,951 HP actions initiated by HPD against landlords for outstanding repairs or failure to restore services, and 860 harassment filings. The huge disparity between the volume of landlord-initiated and tenant-initiated cases indicates that Housing Court is primarily a vehicle for legal claims brought by landlords, not for tenants fighting for their housing rights.
The vast majority of tenant plaintiffs—nearly 99 percent of tenants in 2013 and just over 70 percent in 2016, according to a report issued by the Office of Civil Justice in June 2016—are self-represented. Tenants without legal representation are less likely to receive a favorable outcome because they lack a full understanding of court procedures or their rights and are no match for landlords represented by experienced lawyers.
“Tenants are functioning in an institution which demands they know the law or have a lawyer [because they are] going against landlords who always have lawyers,” said Ed Josephson, the Director of Litigation and Housing at Legal Services NYC, a non-profit providing legal representation to low-income New Yorkers. “There's a built-in disadvantage.”
A 2016 report issued by the NYC Office of Civil Justice found that tenants with legal representation fare far better than those who are unrepresented. The commitment of $100 million that Mayor de Blasio made in May 2015 to provide city-funded legal services to low-income New Yorkers expanded legal representation to just over a quarter of tenants and resulted in evictions falling 24 percent over two years, according to a 2016 NYC Office of Civil Justice report.
When tenants do file harassment cases, it is often a long, burdensome wait before their cases get resolved. Landlords frequently delay trial dates with a series of adjournments that can extend the duration of a tenant’s case by months, if not longer.
Chris Veyssier, 43, a resident of 2 Saint Nicholas Terrace in Harlem, waited through 14 court adjournments that prolonged his eviction case 13 months before he reached a settlement with his landlord. Veyssier received a rent abatement and recouped the full cost of his legal fees, but said he was forced to spend two brutal New York winters without heat or gas, huddled near space heaters and sleeping in a jacket and balaclava to stay warm in his freezing home. Veyssier, the manager of a French bistro in Chelsea, paid attorneys more than $20,000 to fight the harassment. His fellow tenants—most of whom cannot afford to file claims or are hesitant to do so because of their immigration status—still continue to suffer.
The request for multiple adjournments is a legal strategy that Napoli said landlords employ to continue harassment while a case is ongoing. It maintains a sense of uneasiness for tenants who are unsure of their housing status and saddles poor and working-class residents with the prolonged strain of paying legal fees and missing work for court appearances.
“Most tenants after going through a six-month process to get a leaky ceiling fixed will never do it again,” said Jonathan Furlong, the Director of Organizing at Housing Conservation Coordinators, a low-cost legal services provider in the Hell's Kitchen and Upper West Side neighborhoods.
David Tang and his mother, Fung King, have lived at 90 Elizabeth St. in Chinatown since 1989. For almost ten years, while Tang’s landlord was making renovations in the building to attract higher-rent tenants, Tang’s bathroom did not have enough water pressure to shower. He and his mother opted for sponge baths instead. The water took 20 minutes to turn lukewarm. The apartment was so cold in the winter that he was forced to sleep in long johns and street clothes.
During renovations of the apartment above Tang’s, his ceiling collapsed three times—twice upon his mother’s unoccupied bed. Over the course of the 18 months that the landlord, Marolda Properties, owned the property, bundles of debris lined the building’s hallways, dust swirled without mitigation and water leaks sprung, spreading water damage to Tang’s apartment. Exposed wires hung from ceilings, and the noise of hammers and power tools persisted long after working hours.
Tang regards the renovations, which proceeded without safeguards that would protect his apartment, as being motivated by constructive harassment—burdensome and often illegal construction that is intended to drive out low-paying tenants in rent-stabilized units or, in extreme cases, to empty entire buildings.
“You never knew when it was going to stop,” Tang said. “You knew it was going to get worse. It’s a game, up and until you break.”
In the process of conducting gut or major renovations, landlords can subject tenants to extremely unsafe building conditions, hazardous waste, excessive noise and repeated disruptions of basic services. Gut renovations of targeted units in a building serve landlords in two ways: they result in attractive units that can be rented at higher prices and they make life in the building untenable for tenants of rent-stabilized units, whose apartments are neglected and excluded from the renovation process.
A survey of tenants living in buildings undergoing major construction from January to June 2015, conducted by the citywide non-profit coalition Stand for Tenant Safety (STS), found that 52 percent of residents considered moving out of their apartments because of construction and 71 percent reported that construction was a threat to their health or safety.
STS analyzed the complaint, violation and permit data of the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB)—the city agency tasked with ensuring that construction work is done in compliance with building codes and regulations—and found an average wait time of 42 days between the date a complaint was filed with DOB and a DOB inspection. STS also discovered that of the 197 documented complaints of work performed without a permit, only 12 resulted in the issuance of a violation.
Groups in the STS coalition claimed that the DOB imposed insufficient fines for work conducted without proper permits or safety precautions. According to Rolando Guzman of St. Nick’s Alliance, a Williamsburg-based tenant advocacy group, landlords caught doing work without proper permits or safety precautions were issued low fines of up to several hundred dollars, not enough to deter them from continuing their unsafe, unlawful practices.
In September 2017, a package of 18 bills to address harassment was passed by the City Council and signed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. These new laws increased fines for harassment and created the enforcement unit first proposed by STS. The new laws also provide for compensation and coverage of attorney’s fees for tenants who have experienced constructive harassment, includes an expanded definition of harassment that covers repeated nuisance contacts by landlords, and enables tenants to sue for repeated interruptions of essential services and frivolous court proceedings. Another provision established that tenants are no longer required to prove that harassment or disruption of services was intended to displace them.
Other significant provisions include increased DOB oversight for rent-regulated buildings, a requirement that the DOB establish a date by which a building violation must be corrected, and higher penalties for building violations.
Another recent legislative development enacted by the mayor in September 2017 will provide for legal services for tenants who face eviction proceedings in Housing Court and earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The law will be phased in over five years, starting with residents living in New York City Housing Authority developments and gradually spreading to market tenants throughout the boroughs.
“We’re not at all viewing this as the end of the road but as reaching a milestone in the campaign,” Brandon Kielbasa, the director of organizing at Cooper Square Committee, told the publication Chelsea Now after the passage of the law. “The reality is that these problems are really plaguing the entire city. There are a few neighborhoods that don’t have these issues but any place that has rent regulation is starting to see them.”
Despite the recent legislative victories, most tenant attorneys and activists agree that harassment will continue as long as landlords have a financial incentive to force tenants out.
“As long as landlords can double or triple the rent, it's a sucker’s game,” said Josephson. “From a business point of view, they'd be crazy not to try to get their tenants out.”