ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law Tuesday a bill that expands protections for rent-stabilized and rent-regulated tenants, criminalizing certain actions by landlords who try to force them out.
Spearheaded by New York Attorney General Letitia James, the new law says owners are guilty of harassment if they endanger the safety or health of tenants; impair the habitability of the home; or interfere with their tenants’ rest, peace or quiet. Previously the law placed a burden on tenants to prove physical injury.
“For far too long, unscrupulous landlords have gotten away with subjecting rent-regulated tenants to dangerous and inhumane conditions in an attempt to force them out of their homes,” James said in a statement. “Today that changes. Tenants will no longer have to meet an unreasonably high bar to demonstrate that they are being harassed.”
Thanks to the new legislation, dubbed the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, a landlord found harassing one tenant can be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. If the behavior affects two or more, it could be a Class E felony, the lowest-level felony in New York state.
“Over the years I have heard far too many horror stories from my constituents about the harassment they have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous landlords trying to drive them out of their homes,” state Senator Liz Kreuger said in a statement Tuesday.
“Until now, it has been nearly impossible for criminal charges to be filed against even the worst offenders,” she added. “As of today, the law will be updated to protect tenants and give them a fighting chance, and to safeguard our dwindling stock of affordable housing.”
Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview that tenant harassment takes many forms and tends to fly under the radar, even if it’s written into the penal code.
“There’s all kinds of ways that landlords try to get rid of tenants in below market-rate units,” she said, pointing to such methods as early-morning construction, the enforcement of previously ignored lease provisions, or false claims of missing rent payments.
“While this has always been an issue, as the housing crisis has escalated … landlords are very invested in getting tenants out, especially rent-controlled tenants, so we have more and more cases of this kind of harassment,” said Popp.
Rent-controlled apartments, which came to New York City after a post-World War I housing shortage and are passed down through families, are a thorn in the side of landlords who want to charge more for the space but are limited by a maximum base rent. Rent-stabilized apartments restrict how much a landlord can raise rent every year.
The D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute notes that rent control is not a widely adopted policy. Today only California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have local governments with such laws.
Tuesday’s is the latest New York legislation intended to shift the tenant-landlord power balance. A July law extracted power from New York landlords in eviction fights, allowing tenants more time before they have to leave their homes.