NYC lawmakers to unveil bills that keep displaced tenants close to home, speed repairs

A group of City Councilmembers plan to unveil a package of bills Thursday meant to stop landlords from using illegal construction and city vacate orders to move tenants far from their homes and ultimately pressure them to leave for good.

The proposals come on the heels of a Bronx building partially collapsing in December, prompting several residents to be displaced and sent to temporary accommodations in hotels far from their homes. According to the bill’s sponsors, the city has failed to protect tenants when landlords use vacate orders to force the residents out.

Landlords are often restricted in how much they can raise the rent on existing tenants or how much they can charge for apartments that are rent stabilized. By forcing tenants out, owners can make alterations to get around those restrictions.

“One of the biggest problems we see across the city are landlords deliberately destroying or demolishing buildings to force tenants out of their homes or after there’s been a big fire,” Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who represents Jackson Heights, said in a phone interview. “When landlords trigger these vacate orders, the city becomes complicit in these schemes to force tenants from their homes.”

Krishnan’s legislation would require the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency to create special teams to assist residents of recently vacated buildings in finding new places to live. If the landlord delays repairs, one of Krishnan’s bills would require the city to bring legal action against the property owner.

“HPD often is very hesitant to join and support these lawsuits,” Krishnan said. “[The city] says it’s going to be too much money because they see it as a drastic remedy.”

He plans to unveil his legislation alongside Councilmembers Lincoln Restler, Jennifer Guitérrez, Gale Brewer and Alexa Avilés.

A spokesperson for the city housing agency said the administration will review the bills.

Landlord groups said current laws already forbid landlords from evicting tenants during a vacate order.

“These bills seem to reiterate processes and tenant protections already in place, and seek to address activities already not allowed,” said Michael Tobman, a spokesperson for the Rent Stabilization Association.

Another landlord group, Community Housing Improvement Program, declined to comment saying the bill’s intent was unclear.

Advocates for tenants pointed to two examples of what they called a growing problem, wherein landlords use vacate orders to make the lives of rent-regulated tenants difficult.

In November, the Department of Buildings issued a vacate order for 273 Lee Ave. in Brooklyn and cited the building for illegal construction. Tenants there said the owner had been excavating under the building for weeks making it unstable.

One tenant who says she lived in the building for 30 years accused the owner of deliberately trying to force her out and refused to give her any information about what was happening.

“I would’ve loved for somebody to come knock on my door,” Cindy Sanchez said in a phone interview. “I would have loved for HPD to have done that for me, but apparently they didn’t do that at all.”

In another example, 374 Wallabout St. in Brooklyn was destroyed in a fire, but the owner refused to make repairs until HPD forced him two years later, according to Barbara Schliff, a tenant organizer for Los Sures.

Lawyers for both buildings did not immediately respond to phone and email messages.

Schliff said it’s common for landlords to move tenants of vacated buildings to another borough and delay repairs trying to make them give up. The new legislation would require landlords to keep tenants in that neighborhood.

“This is a de facto eviction,” Schliff said in a phone interview. “In many cases, there’s no plan for the tenant to get back in, there’s no plan for the repairs. People lose everything and they have no resources.”

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