Cuomo signs bill to lock up landlords who harass tenants

Critic predicts landlords will be unfairly punished because governor has “no backbone”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Credit: Getty Images, iStock, Wikipedia)
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Credit: Getty Images, iStock, Wikipedia)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Tuesday that makes it easier to incarcerate landlords for tenant harassment.

The law expands the definition of harassment for rent-regulated tenants, prohibiting their landlords from creating “unsafe, disruptive or uninhabitable conditions” to push tenants out of their apartments.

The measure also creates a related misdemeanor-level offense for harassing a rent-regulated tenant by making a home uninhabitable or risking the safety, health and comfort of the tenant.

The legislation expands the definition of an existing felony offense to include landlords who try to force out two or more rent-regulated tenants by creating or maintaining a condition that puts tenants at risk.

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Repeat offenders — those convicted of multiple misdemeanors within five years — face felony charges under the new law. Under the previous law landlords were rarely locked up for tenant harassment.

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Until recently landlords could raise the regulated rent 20% and sometimes convert an apartment to market-rate when it became vacant, which led to incidents of construction being used to induce tenants to leave. The rent law passed in June removed the vacancy bonus, but advocates for tenants say the bill just signed by Cuomo was needed nonetheless.

“The same incentives of landlords intentionally violating law to harass tenants still exist,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, who pointed to landlords’ statements that they will not maintain buildings because the new rent law limited reimbursements for improvements. “We’ve seen such a pushback with changes to the law. A law that makes tenant harassment a crime is more important than ever.”

But according to Jeffrey Goldman, a co-managing partner at real estate law firm Belkin, Burden, Wenig and Goldman, the vague language of the bill will lead to unwarranted claims of harassment. He predicted landlords will be held responsible for poor conditions in apartments and penalized for trying to ameliorate them by seeking to remove problem tenants.

“Landlords will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” said Goldman. “It’s sad the governor doesn’t have a backbone to say no. He seems incapable of doing so, for reasons that are not clear.”

The bill was passed by the state legislature in April and promoted by Attorney General Letitia James. It was originally proposed in 2017 by then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in 2018 after being accused of abusing several women.

“Tenants will no longer have to meet an unreasonably high bar to demonstrate that they are being harassed,” James said in a statement. “Instead, we will ensure that landlords will face justice when they intentionally subject their tenants to unsafe, disruptive, or uninhabitable conditions, such as exposing them to hazardous materials, shutting off heat and hot water, or using construction to make buildings deliberately uninhabitable.”