Credit: Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Yesterday the City Council passed a sweeping package of pro-tenant legislation long advocated by tenants’ rights groups, activists, and sympathetic city officials. One of the key organizations that lobbied for the legislation, the “Stand for Tenant Safety” coalition, held a support rally outside City Hall.

The main target of the new legislation is the widespread practice of “construction as harassment,” whereby landlords use invasive, unsafe, and sometimes illegal construction to drive out tenants. Typically the landlords are trying to get rent-regulated tenants out so they can charge market rents.

The City Council passed 11 bills in the 12-bill package promoted by the Tenant Safety coalition. Sponsored by Council Members Margaret Chin and Carlos Menchaca, the bills aim to rein in abusive landlords by increasing the city’s enforcement powers and holding the Department of Buildings accountable for its responsibilities to tenants. Some of the highlights of the new legislation:

  • The creation of a “safe construction bill of rights.” (Landlords are already required to issue “tenant protection plans” when doing construction.)
  • An increase in penalties for landlords and contractors who do un-permitted work or violate stop-work orders, and the creation of a watchlist of “bad actors” who have done illegal construction.
  • A mechanism for the city to enact liens on landlords and contractors who ignore fines.
  • A mandate that the Department of Buildings increases its audits of construction permits for rent-regulated buildings and affordable housing projects.
  • An inter-agency task force on harassment construction.

In addition to the legislation package advocated by the Tenant Safety coalition, several other bills related to tenants’ rights issues were also passed, for a total of 17. Legislation sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal creates an “Office of the Tenant Advocate” in the Department of Buildings and also authorizes Housing Court judges to award damages to tenants who bring successful harassment claims against their landlord.

Credit: Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center.

“We’ve been working on this legislative package for over two years and obviously because the package is so big we’ve had a lot of sponsors of the legislation and champions in the City Council,” said Jane Li, a staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project, one of the drivers of the Tenant Safety legislation bundle. “I think because the Department of Buildings has been very resistant to reform over the years there was some opposition because we were asking for things that have never been asked of the DOB before.” She also added that there had been expected opposition from the real estate industry, especially “big landlords.”

The twelfth bill of the package, the only one not yet passed, is a “Real-Time Enforcement” protocol mandating the Department of Buildings responds to tenant complaints in a timely matter. “The language of that bill is still being negotiated,” said Li. They hope to pass it sometime in the next few weeks.  Of course, “the work isn’t done and we have to make sure the content of the bills is implemented and tenants know that they have these rights,” she added. The legislation now heads to the Mayor’s Office for his signature.