Landlords harassing stabilized tenants into moving are a dime a dozen at this point, but rarely do we ever actually catch them in the act. Which is why this New York Times story from over the weekend—featuring tenant recordings of an East Village landlord's "agent" allegedly trying to strong-arm them, though ever so gently, into accepting low-ball buyout offers and moving out—was rather astonishing. And definitely a learning opportunity for anyone facing illegal scare tactics from their own landlord. (Was anyone else surprised at how professional the guy in these recordings sounded? We'd somehow expected a knuckle-cracking, Sopranos-worthy fixer.)
"These are classic harassment techniques, they've been around for decades," says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "It's almost like the guy read the DHCR's standard harassment complaint form and said let me 'do all the things they list there'." (Indeed, a good amount of what's said on these recordings flies directly in the face of recently-enacted laws designed to protect regulated tenants from harassment.)
This in mind, we enlisted Himmelstein to help us debunk claims made in each of the recordings published by the Times, so that if your own landlord comes at you with anything of this nature, you'll be prepared:
- Construction work will make the building unlivable. While it is unfortunately common for landlords to try to drive out tenants with unpleasant construction work, this is highly illegal, and tenants do have recourse. (More on that here.) If you and your neighbors have complained to the landlord and the problems are still ongoing, says Himmelstein, this kind of disruption is a breach of the warranty of habitability—in other words, the landlord's legal obligation to provide you with a livable home—and you can file an HP action against them.
- The whole building is being de-stabilized, so your rent will increase regardless. "That’s totally false," says Himmelstein, noting that landlords can't raise the rent more than legally allowable increases (which are currently at zero percent for a one-year rent-stabilized lease), or via renovations to the building. "And just because the rent goes up doesn’t mean a tenant in occupancy loses their stabilized status," he adds, unless you're de-regulated on the basis of high income, which happens when you're paying $2,700/month or more, and have had an income over $200,000 for two consecutive years."
- You might be outed as an illegal immigrant. In the recordings shared with the Times, an agent for the landlord says police will be brought in to investigate alleged criminal activity in the building, and in the process, may find out about a tenant's illegal immigration status. Threatening to report you if you don't give up your apartment (or meet some other financial demand) could potentially be considered extortion, which is a crime, says Himmelstein, who adds, "the notion that the New York City police would get involved in cracking down on illegal immigrants just because a landlord said so is ludicrous. The NYPD is not in the business of enforcing immigration laws." In other words, while it's understandable to be nervous about being reported, the scenario the landlord is threatening is highly unlikely.
- Life will become "unpleasant" (and you'll get a smaller buyout) if you stay. In the fourth call published by the Times, the landlord's rep tells tenants that if they decline the current buyout offer, the landlord will move forward with holdover eviction proceedings. (He also tells them they'll get a smaller buyout than the current offer of around $10,000 to $15,000.) Threats of eviction if you refuse a buyout offer are so common that they're specifically listed as a standard tactic on the DHCR's complaint forms. And as we've written previously, even if a landlord is demolishing and/or selling the building, they'll need to have filed properly with the city, and will almost certainly owe you a buyout far larger than $10,000.
- The owner doesn't care what happens to tenants. In the final recording, the rep tells tenants, "if it was up to the owners, they'd drop dynamite on the building and let everyone figure it out." He also notes that with "the kind of permit we have, no one can complain about construction." With this, Himmelstein says, "there's almost not anything more to say," it's all so patently false. As written above, if you're rent-stabilized, the landlord doesn't have the right to simply kick you out with no recourse (or just demolish the building willy nilly).
Essentially, there are two big lessons to be learned here. The first is not to take anything a landlord (or representative) tells you at face value, even if it all sounds very official and above-board. (A few things to note: The landlord in the Times story denies any attempts to harass tenants, and says the agent in question was dispatched by the property management company, which he has since fired. The management company also denies hiring the agent caught on tape here, who told the Times he was "not in a place to talk at this time." The case is still under investigation.)
And the second is that not only is it completely legal to record your landlord, but if they're trying to give you the boot, it's a highly advisable idea. "[Recording] is totally legal as long as it’s being done by a party to the conversation, and one person knows it’s being recorded," says Himmelstein. "You can do it over the phone or in person."
Greedy landlords: Get ready for your close-ups.