NYC’s Tenant-Harassment Law for Covid-19 Comes Under Scrutiny

Apartment buildings within Co-op City sit along the banks of the Hutchinson River in the Bronx borough of New York, May 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(CN) — A federal judge appeared skeptical on Friday that the breadth and clarity that a suite of New York City laws passed in May to protect tenants during the age of the coronavirus pandemic would pass legal muster. 

Two of the laws opposed by city landlords forbid harassing residential and commercial tenants for nonpayment of rent based on their “status as a person or business impacted by COVID-19.” 

“That description includes virtually every business in the city, right?” U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams asked lawyers for the city during a nearly two-hour hearing. 

One of the city’s lawyers, Carlos Fernando Ugalde Alvarez, argued that the statute applies to businesses whose “on-premises services” have been affected, a smaller number.  

Landlords, led by Brooklyn-based small business owner Marcia Melendez, claim that the laws go much farther and that nothing prevents tenants from interpreting any effort to collect rent as “harassment.”   

Melendez, who chairs Jarican Realty Inc. and 1025 Pacific LLC, says a residential tenant accused her of harassment for demanding unpaid rent, without threats of violence or any illegal actions.  

The city’s attorney Pamela Ann Koplik said that is not supposed to happen. 

“Lawful demands for rent are not proscribed,” Koplik said.  

Stephen Younger, who represents the landlords for the firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler LLP, slammed the city’s distinction as unrealistic.  

“The problem is the city is taking the hyper-technical view of these laws,” Younger said. “It’s not based on what’s been going on in the real world.” 

Even major corporations have interpreted the law differently than the city and used it against smaller landlords.  

In June, the Gap and Old Navy sued landlords in Manhattan Supreme Court under the commercial harassment law for demanding rent and threatening to terminate their leases, an example of litigation the landlords cited in their case. 

Judge Abrams appeared to agree that the city’s interpretation of the law — limiting it to targeted harassment of tenants because they were affected by the pandemic — was unrealistic.  

“What’s happening in reality is a lot of people are out of jobs and can’t pay their rent and have to close their businesses,” she told a lawyer for the city. 

Landlords are also challenging a law preventing property owners from holding personal guarantors of certain commercial tenants liable debts incurred because of the coronavirus. 

Like most hearings since March, Friday’s oral arguments were held virtually via Skype. The public could listen in via telephone. The judge reserved decision on the matter. 

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