In the battle against tenant harassment and displacement, we’ve often seen the mayor receive sharp criticism from the indefatigable Coalition to Protect Chinatown (members are once again gathering tomorrow to demand that work be stopped on Extell’s 80-story tower). But yesterday de Blasio’s office released figures showing he’s making a dent in the problem. Thanks to recent measures like a $62 million increase in free legal services for tenants and a roving tenant support unit, his office says evictions by City Marshals have decreased from 28,849 in 2013 to 21,988 last year.
Tenant harassment is gaining increased scrutiny as the mayor’s proposals for rezoning and affordable housing are deliberated in City Council. If passed, the new laws would allow taller buildings in many low-income areas, but require 30 percent to be affordable housing units. Many worry that the resulting construction boom would go hand-in-hand with more displacement and further incentivize unscrupulous landlords to find creative ways to push tenants out of existing buildings.
The special tenant support unit, established last July, is an effort to monitor landlord harassment–instances of which B+B has investigated in the past–on the ground level. The unit’s specialists knock on doors around the city, informing tenants of their rights, documenting building violations, and listening to complaints related to harassment and eviction (such as inadequate heat and hot water, infestations and round-the-clock or intentionally disruptive construction). In some cases, they make repairs and charge the landlord. Whenever necessary, they also help people get in touch with free legal support that can represent them in housing court.
According to the administration, since July the unit has knocked on 57,000 doors, called more than 23,000 tenants, identified 2,400 New Yorkers that needed help and resolved 1,000 of those cases.
Of course, tenant rights groups and elected officials are still calling for much more than free legal advice. The problem is far reaching, even touching high levels of government. Last year more than a dozen city-employed building inspectors and clerks were charged with bribery for allegedly accepting kickbacks in exchange for brushing complaints and stop-work orders under the rug, expediting building inspections and even trying to remove pesky tenants under false pretenses.
In September and December the group Stand for Tenant Safety, a coalition of community-based organizations, legal service agencies and tenant advocates, rallied in support of a raft of new laws aimed at curbing tenant harassment. The package of 12 proposed bills, supported by council members Margaret Chin, Stephen Levin and Antonio Reynoso, goes much further than current protections. Some of the items include: requiring the Department of Buildings to inspect at-risk buildings for instances of harassment instead of allowing for self-certification; creating a list of contractors who have been found guilty of working without a permit; and creating a real-time enforcement unit that would be able to respond to the worst violations immediately.
But last week The Daily News reported that the administration was pushing back against some of the tenant protection bills, which are currently being debated in City Council. Vito Mustaciuolo, HPD’s deputy commissioner, worried that too many broad barriers to development would be difficult to enforce and “slow the production of and rehabilitation of housing just when we have a pressing need for more housing to address the affordability crisis our families face and to prevent the rent increases that lead to displacement.”
So tooting the horn about a recent drop in tenant evictions is also probably a welcome distraction from the fray– not to mention the tensions between Governor Cuomo and de Blasio, which seem to be threatening the mayor’s affordable housing plan on a broader level.