New legislation aimed at holding the city’s most unscrupulous landlords criminally accountable for tenant harassment, has been proposed by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
Current state law demands prosecutors reach an inexplicably high bar in order to criminally charge landlords with harassment of rent-regulated tenants—which is why in the past 20 years, not a single landlord has ever been convicted of the crime of Harassment of a Rent Regulated Tenant.
The AG’s legislation would change that, by setting a more reasonable standard that removes the need to prove physical injury to a tenant, and opens the door to prosecutions arising out of more commonplace and insidious tactics, such as turning off heat and hot water, exposing young children to lead dust, and making rent-stabilized buildings deliberately uninhabitable for current tenants and their families.
The legislation introduced today is just the most recent action taken by the AG to stem a rising tide of tenant harassment complaints across New York City. The AG’s other work includes:
Launching a new team to enhance and streamline the office’s resources to combat tenant harassment, deceptive lending practices, deed theft, bank fraud, and other housing issues facing constituents.
Charging landlords and management companies for alleged illegal practices to harass or endanger rent-regulated tenants.
Filing felony charges against landlords who allegedly commit mortgage fraud or fraudulently refinance loans.
The formation of the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force with city and state officials.
“Our current laws are outdated, ineffective, and totally inadequate to keep tenants safe from unscrupulous landlords seeking to unlawfully evict New York families,” Schneiderman said. “With affordable housing as scarce as ever, it’s time for lawmakers to give prosecutors new tools to stop the menacing – and often dangerous – measures these landlords use to force tenants out of their homes. Protecting vulnerable tenants has been, and will remain, a top priority of my office.”
“Toughening up criminal penalties helps us level the playing field and protect tenants victimized by greedy, negligent landlords who put their own profit ahead of the rights of those paying the rent,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “I applaud attorney general Schneiderman’s move to make it harder for bad actors to harass tenants, and will join him in advocating for this important penal law change.”
“Stronger tenant harassment legislation will deter potential unconscionable acts and help tenants feel more secure in filing charges against any unscrupulous landlords,” added New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “I commend Attorney General Schneiderman for his work on this very important bill that will extend protections to all tenants. The New York City Council last week introduced a tenant harassment protections package of legislation that will work conjunction with this bill, and we will continue to partner with the attorney general to protect everyone in our City — especially the most vulnerable.”
Under the existing Harassment of a Rent Regulated Tenant statute, a prosecutor must not only prove that the offending landlord intended to cause the tenant to vacate their home, but also that the tenant sustained physical injury due to the landlord’s actions and that the landlord actually intended to cause (or acted with criminal recklessness in causing) such injury.
This existing Penal Law statute creates an inexplicably high bar that – in the nearly two decades since the law was enacted – has never been met. In fact, a recent analysis of NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services data shows that not a single landlord has ever been convicted of the crime of Harassment of a Rent Regulated Tenant.
The Attorney General’s legislation would eliminate the need to prove physical injury to a tenant, and a landlord’s specific intent to cause it, in order to secure a criminal conviction against an offending landlord.
Specifically, the legislation: Adds a new class A misdemeanor that would apply to landlords and their agents who, with the intent to cause a rent regulated tenant to vacate their home, engage in a “course of conduct” that is reasonably likely to, and does in fact, interfere with and disturb the comfort, repose, peace and quiet of such tenant in the use of their home;
Expands the existing class E felony Penal Law statute to make it unlawful for landlords or their agents to attempt to force tenants in two or more rent-regulated units to move out by engaging in a “systematic ongoing course of conduct” or “repeatedly committing acts over a period of time” that “is or are reasonably likely to interfere with and disturb, and does or do interfere with and disturb, the comfort, repose, peace and quiet” of such tenants in the use of their homes; and Makes it a class E felony for a landlord to commit the new class A misdemeanor offense after he or she has been convicted of that crime within the preceding five years.
These provisions make it easier for prosecutors to curb common tactics used by landlords to force out tenants, including long and disruptive construction projects, deprivation of hot water and heat for extended periods of time. The new class A misdemeanor imposes a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail. The class E felony carries a maximum sentence of up to four years in prison.