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Landlord harassment bill may have side effects

The New York City Council has just introduced a bill that aims to increase the penalties for commercial landlords engaging in tenant harassment.

The bill, Int. No. 851, was introduced last Thursday with the aim of “curtailing harassment of small businesses and other non-residential tenants.”

Photo by Celynek/ Flickr
Photo by Celynek/ Flickr

If adopted in its current form, the legislation would double the fine for commercial landlords found guilty of harassing tenants and create a public registry of erring landlords.

While the bill aims to install safeguards against harassment, the legislation may have some unforeseen side effects.

Critics claim that the legislative body is promoting a negative view of the real estate industry.

Sherwin Belkin, a real estate legal expert and a founding partner at Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, said that the bill paints the real  estate industry with the “broadest of brushes,” suggesting that a majority of landlords resort to illegal means to push out tenants.

“Government seems inclined to always paint with the broadest of brushes when it comes to this industry. Certainly, no one condones the use of physical intimidation or threats, or denying repairs or cutting off heat and utilities as a tactic to force commercial tenants to vacate early,” Belkin said.

Councilman Mark Levine, one of the bill’s sponsors, disputed such notions, claiming that landlords who operate under the law have nothing to worry about.

“This only targets those landlords who are engaging in unlawful harassment. Landlords who are doing the right thing and providing adequate service to their building, this will not affect them in any way,” he said.

The new bill aims to make unlawful harassment a more costly undertaking. It raises the maximum fine for tenant harassment from $5,000 to $10,000. If passed, it would also establish an online registry of landlords that have been fined.

“We want commercial tenants to have some recourse and not be subjected to harassment by landlords. This is, unfortunately, increasingly common because landlords have concluded that they can push out tenants before their lease is up because they’ll increase the rent,” Levine said.

According to Levine, the bill, which still has to go through a committee hearing before being voted on, has been received positively by his colleagues. “We got a spontaneous outpouring of support from our colleagues in the City Council,” he said.

Levine’s optimism may be justified. According to the Wall Street Journal, Democrats are on board with the proposal. Democrats have a large majority in the chamber, occupying 48 of the 51 seats.

Nonetheless, Belkin questions the wisdom behind the legislation, saying that there is no evidence that a lot of commercial tenants are being pushed out through illegal tactics. “Before enacting legislation, shouldn’t government have some empirical evidence of a widespread problem, rather than rely upon anecdotes, which may or may not represent reality?”

Levine essentially confirmed Belkin’s assertion. “I only have anecdotal evidence based on what we’re seeing in my district,” he said. Nonetheless, he argues that many long-term commercial tenants in his district are being pushed out as rental prices rise.

Tenant protections laws have mostly been introduced for people living in rent-regulated apartments. However, there are a handful of bills that target commercial tenants. Int. No. 851 comes a year after the introduction of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which aims to require a fair negotiating process for the renewal of commercial leases.

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