By Robert Cornwell, RiseBoro
Legal Empowerment Assistance Program, Staff Attorney
In the case of 306 Harman Street, the RiseBoro Community Partnership's LEAP team applied their expertise and skills to preserve all six affordable rent stabilized apartments in a six-unit building in the heart of gentrifying Bushwick. Through tenant organizing, meticulous case management, filing administrative proceedings, defending court cases, and initiating attorney negotiations, LEAP was able to stave off an owner's attempt to vacate and destabilize an entire building. After two years of proceedings and negotiations, the tenants received major repairs, substantial abatements, proper lease renewals, and peace of mind.
The property is a six-unit multiple dwelling building that is home to six Hispanic families. The current owner purchased the building in March of 2014. Upon purchase, he instantly told tenants they would have to move out in two months.
One tenant came to the RiseBoro: LEAP office and informed an Organizer of the events. The Organizer quickly visited the building and convened a group meeting with all six units. At that meeting, the LEAP team informed the group of their rights as rent stabilized tenants, and facilitated the formation of a Tenant Association. Organizers then performed a floor to ceiling inspection of the building to document the repair conditions which included serious leaks, vermin infestation, mold, broken floor tiles, and so forth. The LEAP office sent the owner a formal letter informing him of his obligations to repair the apartments and to refrain from telling the tenants to move out. By speaking to the landlord with a strong collective voice, the LEAP team demonstrated that the tenants were unified and would not be pressured into giving up their affordable homes for his economic pursuits. In addition, the extensive repair list with photo documentation informed the landlord that the team was serious and prepared to pursue legal action as necessary to preserve and protect the rights of our clients. The landlord responded, and the LEAP Organizer mediated a repair schedule which led to the resolution of many of the repair issues.
In conducting tenant intakes, a LEAP Case Manager noticed that none of the apartments had been properly registered with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) for two decades. The tenants had all moved into their apartments since 2000 with leases, with monthly rents from $800 to $1,100. Some of the tenants had their rent amount increased orally by the prior landlord without lease renewals. Our Case Manager filed rent overcharge complaints with DHCR in order to determine the proper legal rent amounts for each apartment, and compel the owner to file the appropriate registrations. In response, the landlord brought the tenants to court claiming that they were not paying their rent and that the rents should be higher than we claimed. LEAP attorneys stepped in at this point and got the court cases dismissed for procedural errors. After those cases were dismissed LEAP attorneys contacted the landlord's newly retained attorney following the case dismissals and set about a negotiation process to resolve all the issues facing their clients. The tenants' objectives were clear- they wanted to remain in their affordable homes with correct leases and repaired apartments. After months of negotiations and DHCR submissions on the lease issues, the assigned LEAP attorney was able to reach a global settlement. The settlement achieved the tenants' goals of obtaining proper lease renewals (based on DHCR decisions) and proper repairs, and awarded each tenant a 15 percent abatement of all rent from January 2014 through September 2016 (amounting to approximately $5,000 per tenant).
This case illustrates the importance of organizing tenants as soon as a new owner purchases a rent stabilized building with the intent to vacate and destabilize it. Many of these tenants do not speak English and were unfamiliar with the rent stabilization laws. The owner hoped to take advantage of the language barrier and use his authority as a property owner to trick these tenants to vacate. LEAP's Spanish-speaking staff (organizers, case managers, and attorneys) were able to quickly step in, empower the tenants with key legal knowledge, and then represent the tenants as a group in landlord-tenant mediation, DHCR procedures, court cases and extensive negotiations. Through the solidarity and cooperation of the tenant association, LEAP was able to assist the tenants, save their six rent stabilized apartments, and obtain significant abatements for the conditions under which they suffered.
RiseBoro's LEAP office is located at 217 Wyckoff Avenue.
The office is open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, weekdays. Phone 718-366-3800.
Published January 10, 2017