“Aquí estamos y no nos vamos”: Combatting Construction as Tenant Harassment

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Diana Reyna speaking at Brooklyn borough hall

A large crowd gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall on January 31st to relay their experiences and frustrations with tenant harassment to city officials. The event, organized by Stand for Tenant Safety (STS) and their coalition, saw an amalgamation of tenants, family members, tenants rights activists, and government workers. The voices of the aggrieved tenants took center stage as the event began with personal accounts of tenant harassment. The use of construction work as harassment has become increasingly prevalent in recent years as areas in Brooklyn gentrify and rental prices rise. Many of these tenants occupy rent stabilized units, which are protected by the government and stipulate that the rent may only rise by certain state sanctioned percentages and that landlords cannot evict a tenant without proper cause.  However, landlords in search of profits implement illegal practices to remove tenants by making their apartments unlivable through invasive construction.

A tenant named Helen from Bushwick described construction-related pipes put through her living room at 316 Stanton St. and a previous landlord who broke down her door and went into the apartment without consent.  Lisa from Crown Heights explained how she awoke one night to water pouring into her kitchen from construction work, which ruined her groceries and appliances. She is still in residence at 80 New York Avenue and is experiencing her second winter without heat as the landlord attempts to literally freeze her out of her rent-stabilized apartment. Lisa questioned the lack of reprisals for landlords and declared that, “If I get parking tickets, they take away my car… If I don’t pay my taxes, they garnish my wages.” Lisa questioned, “How are these landlords able to go on?” and called for “criminal fines” for the landlords.

STS has been working with lawmakers to create a package of bills meant to deal with issues like these. One proposed piece of legislation seeks to strengthen tenant protection plans (TPP) through “content, accessibility, and enforceability”. By forcing landlords to elucidate the details of mandated protection plans to tenants as well as increasing scrutiny from the Department of Buildings (DOB), the bill hopes to stop work when a TPP is not being fulfilled. The landlord will also post a “Safe Construction Bill of Rights” in multiple languages in order to inform tenants of their rights during construction. In addition, another bill in the twelve-law package would increase penalties for violating stop work orders by the DOB.

Hopefully some of these proposed laws will help the most powerless among affected tenants namely children and the elderly. One SCRIE (Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption) tenant had a hole through their bathroom during construction as well as increased respiratory issues from the construction dust. A mother at 365 S 4th St. explained how her landlord claimed the unit was vacant to begin construction. The construction began without proper plastic coverings leading to respiratory issues in her young child that culminated in the child’s need for surgery. An apartment building in Park Slope that was bought by Slate Property Group experienced such severe demolition vibrations that a lamp almost fell on a tenant’s baby, further delineating gross landlord abuses and harassment.

Many of these tenants contend that the construction in their respective apartments was done without the proper permits and without contractors following the proper codes. Proposed laws in the STS package would create a watch list of contractors who have worked without permits in the last two years. These contractors will be subject to increased inspections by the DOB when they work until they have two years free of violations. In addition if landlords are found guilty of tenant harassment, they will be subject to investigations before any permits for further construction work are issued. Another law will increase penalties for doing work without a permit and will implement harsher fines for permit-less work in multifamily units in an attempt to deter this prevalent practice.

The final tenant speaker was from Williamsburg and animatedly relayed his landlord’s preplanned deceit. The tenant reported construction work to the DOB but because of their slow response time and lack of tools they closed the complaint after two attempts. However, the landlord started gutting the apartment over MLK weekend in 2016, and despite the tenants calls he could not get through to the DOB because it was a public holiday. He lamented that, “someone can go into a building and tear it apart and nothing happens, but if I went into CVS there would be police [everywhere].” The audience erupted in understanding applause. The proposed creation of a real time enforcement unit will also attempt to remedy response related issues by requiring the DOB to respond within two hours and keep public logs of their response times.

The Deputy Borough President, Diana Reyna, stated that the STS legislative platform would give the DOB the tools to “ease the pain of harassment.” She recalled being pushed out of her own home as an 8 year old with her mother who was targeted because she didn’t speak English. As Reyna recollected translating for her Spanish-speaking mother, she emphasized “safety first for your family.” She declared that “this is all of our problem” and “when there is tenant harassment next to you, it will soon be you.” The proposed DOB reforms offer a solution to the pervasive tenant harassment in Brooklyn and provide a hopeful blueprint for dealing with the vast abuses in the tenant-landlord power dynamic.