Heated Hearing Finds Councilmembers Considering Batch of Tenant-Aiding Bills
BY SEAN EGAN | When Xiao Ling Chen took her seat before the City Council Housing and Buildings Committee to give testimony in support of new tenant harassment bills, she was probably not expecting to cry. But, in recent years, the longtime Eldridge St. resident’s multi-generational family has been crammed into just two rooms due to extensive and invasive construction, subject to mold and insects, and has suffered broken furniture and appliances at the hands of building management making minor repairs. It’s enough to overwhelm anyone. As she began to get emotional, and the tears started falling, Councilmembers Helen Rosenthal and Jumaane Williams approached her in an attempt to calm her down. She quickly excused herself from the chambers. The hearing continued, as more than a dozen others waited to share similarly gut-wrenching accounts of tenant harassment.
“It shouldn’t be this hard,” Councilmember Rosenthal told Chelsea Now in an interview prior to the above incident. “I heard a story about a community board meeting that a tenant was at. It was a land use meeting, and an architect was presenting information about a building that was to be gutted because it wasn’t occupied, and the work that he was going to be doing — at which point the tenant stood up and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute; I live in that building.’ ”
Rosenthal’s comments came in advance of Wed., April 19’s City Council Housing and Buildings Committee hearing, whose agenda consisted of discussing five measures which help comprise a package of bills known as the “Stand For Tenant Safety” (STS) package, designed to help combat such tenant-related incidents. “My office, every year, we see roughly between three and five thousand cases; 80 percent of those cases are related to tenant harassment, in one form or another,” Rosenthal said of the package, which includes a bill she authored. “This legislation is, from my perspective, a package of ideas to help move the ball forward to help these tenants. They’ve been written because of the situations that we’ve seen.”
In addition, other tenant-related measures were discussed for the first time, including Rosenthal’s Intro. No. 347-A, which would grant Housing Court judges the ability to award damages and attorney fees for tenant harassment actions. Most notable, however, is Rosenthal’s Intro. No. 1523, which would create the office of Tenant Advocate in the Department of Buildings (DOB). “It tasks them with approving the [tenant protection plans], site safety plans, and communicating with residents about construction,” explained Rosenthal of the potential office. “It could be an incredibly helpful tool for tenants who are trying to get a response out of the Department of Buildings.”
“I think opening government to residents is critical, and it shouldn’t be the case that only a councilmember can get through to the Department of Buildings,” she went on. “Tenants are being harassed all the time, and they should know that they have an advocate inside the Department of Buildings that they can access, and where they can get straight talk and information. We haven’t seen that before.”
“We speak to tenants every day from our district who are living in unsafe conditions, are being harassed by their landlords, or simply do not understand their rights as tenants,” concurred Ryan Monell, representing Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, a co-sponsor of Intro. 1523, in an email to Chelsea Now. “Having a singular office that can assist with many of the concerns we see would be tremendously helpful to many, notably those in immigrant communities.”
The measure also attracted the attention of the Community Residents Protection (CRP) task force of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA). Bill Borock, CCBA president, told Chelsea Now, “The concept of having a Tenant Advocate in a city agency advocating for tenants when something is not proper is a great idea,” though nonetheless, he remained uncertain of whether the DOB would actually be able to execute the measure efficiently if passed. The group’s watched the DOB consistently drop the ball on tenants’ issues in the past, leaving him concerned that the issues would not be ameliorated without the significant reform of the DOB.
It was concern that echoed loudly and frequently, by councilmembers and the public alike, at Wednesday’s hearing, where representatives of the DOB and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) were present to discuss their positions on the bills as currently written. Sitting on the panel and fielding questions were First Deputy Commissioner Thomas Fariello and Assistant Commissioner, External Affairs Patrick Wehle of the DOB, and Deputy Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo and Assistant Commissioner Deborah Rand of HPD’s Office of Enforcement and Neighborhood Services.
While the representatives of both bodies expressed an eagerness to improve their protection of the city’s tenants, and applauded the councilmembers’ initiative, they still had a number of issues with many of the agenda items. As per Intro. 347-A, Rand and Mustaciuolo questioned the purview and effectiveness of HPD’s housing court in awarding damages, suggesting it may be more appropriate for civil court — despite Rosenthal’s protests that additional trips to court would be a hardship for most suffering from harassment. They also expressed trepidation over the broadness of the language in Intro. 1549 (which seeks to allow tenants to establish a landlord’s bad conduct as “repeated” by citing actions that were not specifically directed at them) and Intro. 1548 (which would codify repeatedly contacting or visiting a tenant at unusual hours as a form of harassment).
In response to Intro. 3 — which would allow HPD to make owners place funds in an escrow account for tenant relocation in the neighborhood during construction — Mustaciuolo endorsed the sentiment of the bill, while questioning the ability of HPD to manage potentially hundreds of escrow accounts. Similarly, the DOB reps explained, the watchlist of “bad contractors” who’ve worked without proper permits proposed by STS’s Intro. 938 was an idea they endorse, but would likely not be particularly effective, as contractors are rarely on-site once construction is complete and inspections take place.
On all the above issues, the reps encouraged continued conversation between their agencies and City Council to best make the bills work for tenants and their departments.
More contentious, however, were the discussions surrounding Intro. 1523, as the DOB representatives were staunch in their assertion that their department did not need to create the office of Tenant Advocate. “Creating a new office as described in the bill will create no improvement,” said Fariello, and he as explained the DOB has plenty of avenues for tenants to contact the department and file complaints (including using 311), and that much of the work that the Tenant Advocate office would do — including ensuring tenant protection plans are in place and being followed — are handled elsewhere in the DOB currently. According to Wehle, “adding another layer” to the existing processes in place now would create more difficulty for tenants and the DOB.
“What this office would do is give the DOB a public platform with which to counter the building owners that are doing things that might be structurally sound, but are obviously construction as harassment,” Rosenthal rejoined. “So why not? If you’re already doing the work, why not have a platform?”
On multiple occasions, passions ran high in the Council chambers. Councilmember Stephen Levin blasted the DOB’s 40-day turnaround period for conducting inspections in response to tenant harassment complaints. “It’s not acceptable and it’s not an effective deterrent,” he emphasized, despite protests from Wehle that practically, it often only takes 20 or so days to complete. Councilmember Williams, who chaired the hearing, was forced to bang the gavel at Rosenthal, who ignored her time limits while conducting an impassioned grilling of the commissioners. And, on multiple occasions, Williams had to politely chide the sign-waving and applauding crowd assembled.
Williams himself, though, had his own moment of emotional incredulity while defending his Intro. 1156, which would increase minimum civil penalties in harassment cases — which, Mustaciuolo argued, might dissuade judges from finding landlords guilty of harassment. “Let’s do the math real quick,” Williams said, pausing proceedings to crunch the numbers HPD reps provided of successful harassment cases brought against landlords from 2014–16 — revealing “appalling” and “absurd” figures in the one- and two-percent range. “Thank you for all the work you’re already doing,” Williams said at the end of the questioning period. “But obviously, it’s not working.”
The public testimony section was similarly passionate, and served as a strong rebuttal to the DOB and HPD reps’ downplaying of the severity of the issue, and highlighted those agencies’ shortcomings in enforcing existing regulations. Panel after panel of wronged tenants offered anecdotal evidence lending credence to the councilmembers’ claims of widespread harassment, while uniformly endorsing the STS package and associated bills.
The Lower East Side’s Seth Wandersman spoke of his building issues being “repeatedly ignored” by the DOB, despite dust proliferating with 300 times the acceptable federal level of lead. Gilbert Sabater, a resident of E. 86th St., noted that in his building (which has 300 rent-controlled units), “We’ve been under constant construction for 30 months,” cataloging noisy early-morning construction, asbestos and dust issues, and inefficient DOB inspections where the contractors downplay projects’ breadths and get let off without infractions. “If that’s not harassment, I don’t know what is.”
And, of course, Xiao Ling Chen, the woman who broke down in tears before the councilmembers, regained her composure and re-entered the chamber, translator at her side, to tell about her “nightmare.” For nearly two years, she recounted, her three grandchildren (all 10 and under) have been cramped on two beds displaced out in her living room, while she sleeps on a couch — and the harsh living conditions have impaired their ability to complete their homework. “We’ve become human vacuum cleaners,” she said. “The only way I can describe the dust that’s in my apartment is it’s like a dust storm in Beijing.”
It’s exactly this kind of story that’s incensed the City Council to try to push these bills through as quickly as possible — to empower tenants, and to make the ill-acting landlords pay. “How can we get someone who is lying to actually go to jail? Because fines are not enough,” Councilmember Rosie Mendez pressed earlier in the hearing. “There need to be real repercussions.”