New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is attempting to amend 1990s-era anti-harassment legislation that has never been successfully employed to convict a rental housing landlord. His proposed Tenant Protection Act would broaden the definition of criminal conduct beyond the current requirement to prove that landlords have wilfully caused physical injury to tenants in rent-regulated accommodations.
The new legislation, which was tabled in the state legislature in late May, targets actions to impair a unit’s habitability, endanger occupants’ health or safety and/or interrupt or discontinue essential services. As proposed, a one-time offence would be classified as a misdemeanour, drawing a maximum of one year of jail time. More systematic efforts to dislodge two or more tenants from rent-regulated quarters would be a felony, carrying a maximum penalty of four years in state prison.
“We must give prosecutors the tools necessary to protect tenants and stem the rising tide of tenant harassment that is undermining affordability around New York,” Schneiderman asserts.
“In an effort to get market-value rents, landlords have gone to great lengths to force rent-regulated tenants out of their homes. Their wrongdoings have escaped the scope of current criminal law,” adds New York Assembly member Joseph Lentol.
State prosecutors have instead used other legal options to get around what Schneiderman terms “an inexplicably high evidentiary bar” in the existing anti-harassment statute. Most recently, a New York City landlord pleaded guilty to fraudulently refinancing loans after the Attorney General’s office charged him on the evidence that he submitted false documents to prospective lenders reporting market rents and income streams he wasn’t actually attaining.
The landlord, who owns more than 140 apartment buildings in Manhattan, was found to have received USD $45 million in loans through these false pretences. He was also convicted of tax fraud for failing to deduct state payroll tax on a covert bonus payment to a property manager who had been tasked with pushing tenants out of rent-regulated units.
Under the plea agreement, the landlord was sentenced to one year of jail time and must pay a USD $5 million tax settlement. “Unscrupulous landlords are on notice that we’ll pursue them to the fullest extent of the law,” Schneiderman warns.