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Ask Sam: How do I protect myself from a landlord's illegal eviction attempts?

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It's no secret that there are unscrupulous New York City landlords who will do everything in their power to oust rent-regulated tenants from their apartments, whether it's legal or not. And their practices were thrown into sharper focus thanks to recent coverage about landlords potentially using phony demolition evictions to clear tenants out of their newly-purchased properties.

If your building happens to come under new management, there are ways for you and your neighbors to protect yourselves from these bad actors, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. Read on for tips on keeping your regulated rental even in the face of an aggressive new owner:

1. Do your research

Just as you would during the initial search for an apartment, you'll want to find out as much as possible about your new landlord right off the bat. "First, I would research the developer," says Himmelstein. "You can find out a lot on Google these days, and by looking at publications like The Real Deal and Gothamist. See what they've done in the past—are they developesr who knock down and put up high rises? Are they co-op and condo owners? Do they try to get tenants out, gut apartments, and raise the rents?"

You can also research title information on your building and neighboring buildings using tools like ACRIS and the Buildings Information System to find out things like who owns the building, what the zoning is, if the owner has filed any permits for construction, and whether or not it's landmarked. ("Landmarking can really hamper a landlord's ability to build," notes Himmelstein.)

"I would also do some title research about the neighboring buildings," Himmelstein advises. If one person or LLC has bought a bunch of buildings on your block, that's a good sign they're looking to make it a development site.

2. Talk to your neighbors

As always when dealing with a landlord, there's strength in numbers. "It really pays to organize a tenants' association early in the process," says Himmelstein.

This is in part because landlords often attempt "divide and conquer" tactics going to different tenants and offering lowball buyouts, often based on false claims that everyone else in the building has already agreed to one. If everyone in your building is in communication and on the same page, this becomes much harder to do.

If you don't already have one, Sam's got tips on starting your own tenants' association here.

3. Be a model citizen

Annoying thought it may be, now is also the time to starting minding your Ps and Qs with regards to your own conduct as a tenant, as a new owner could be on the hunt for any reason to claim you've broken the rules and therefore should be evicted.

"Landlords often try to find out if tenants have any weaknesses, and there are a lot of activities that tenants do that are allowed, but past a certain point, will land them in trouble," says Himmelstein. The big one here is the potential for a "non-primary residence" case claiming that you don't spend the majority of the year living in your rent regulated apartment.

"Owners will go onto sites like Property Shark and type in your name to see if you own another home or condo in another state," he explains. "They'll typically look at upstate New York, Connecticut, Florida, places where people tend to have their second homes." Similarly, they'll also scan your social media for incriminating posts indicating that you live elsewhere, are running a business illegally out of your apartment, or have put the place up for rent on a site like Airbnb. Some landlords even go so far as to send in a private investigator posing as, say, a prospective Airbnb guest to catch you in the act.

The bottom line: make sure you're on the right side of the law, but also be skeptical if the landlord starts making these kinds of claims against you. "There's a type of lawyer that specializes in sending letters to tenants saying they're doing something illegal, then following up immediately with a low buyout offer," Himmelstein explains. "A lot of tenants never go to a lawyer, get scared, and they move."

4. Know what you're entitled to

If the landlord does tell you that they plan to demolish the building and you have to move, arm yourself with information.

"If the landlord plans to really demolish the building, they have to file with the DHCR, and if they do that, you'll eventually get served with their application for a Certificate of Eviction and be given an opportunity to contest it" says Himmelstein. (More details here on what kind of documents you can expect.) Don't settle for anything less than official notification.

If they're truly demolishing the building, they have to either place you in a new rental, or offer you a sizeable buyout, says Himmelstein. (Another reason to band together with your neighbors: your negotiating power will be far stronger.) Although the relocation stipends set forth in the Rent Stabilization Code and Rent Control Regulations are “woefully inadequate” according to Himmelstein, much larger negotiated payments are the norm in these cases, because a Tenant Association represented by counsel can tie these cases up for years, something developers find intolerable.  So even if the landlord is simply faking a prospective demolition just to get you out—a tactic that was mentioned in the article linked to up top—you should be walking away from their bluff with a new apartment, or a significant amount of cash.

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Sam Himmelstein, Esq., represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan.  To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.


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