Investigation Leads to Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force’s First Arrests
Faced with a rising number of complaints from tenants, particularly in New York City’s fastest growing neighborhoods, Attorney General Schneiderman, Mayor de Blasio, and Governor Cuomo created a joint Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force in February to investigate and bring enforcement actions, including criminal charges, against owners who harass tenants. The task force is particularly aimed at confronting building owners who use a variety of tactics, including disruptive and dangerous renovation and construction projects, to force tenants into vacating rent-regulated apartments.
The task force executes unannounced and joint inspections of buildings where owners and management companies are suspected of using unsafe construction work as a means to harass tenants. Recently, A.G. Schneiderman, joined by Mayor de Blasio and New York State Homes and Community Renewal Commissioner James Rubin announced the arrest and indictment of an owner by the task force, on charges that the owner endangered the health and safety of rent-regulated tenants, including a 6-year-old child, during demolition and construction that began in February 2014 at his 14-unit building in Brooklyn. An engineer hired by the owner to oversee construction at the building was also indicted of filing a false document. Both pleaded not guilty in Brooklyn Criminal Court. The arrests are the first to result from an investigation led by the task force.
New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development identified the owner’s buildings as potential targets for the task force following a review of filings with the Department of Buildings (DOB), as well as an examination of active complaints by both current and former tenants. The DOB and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also participated in the inspections.
Prosecutors allege that defendants filed false documents to circumvent the requirement that they submit what’s known as a “tenant protection plan,” which ensures safety protocols are in place when occupied buildings are undergoing construction. Prosecutors claim that at the time defendants filed construction plans stating that the building was vacant, the building was in fact occupied, and the defendants thereby circumvented safety measures required by law.
Prosecutors also allege that the Task Force investigation revealed the owner had repeatedly shut off heat and hot water to rent-regulated tenants during winter construction in early and late 2014.
As part of the investigation by the joint task force, a DOB inspector gathered dust samples from the common areas on each floor of the building in December 2014. Prosecutors allege that laboratory results of the 19 samples taken show lead dust well beyond permissible levels, including a finding of approximately 22,000 micrograms of lead per square foot or more than 88 times the threshold allowable under federal Environmental Protection Agency standards on a common stairwell. According to court documents, tenants told Task Force investigators that the dust generated by building construction was so pervasive that tenants were forced to stuff wet towels under their doors to prevent the toxic dust from entering their homes.