When the state legislature renewed the rent-stabilization laws in 2011, part of the deal was that the state would do more to enforce them. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo created the Tenant Protection Unit, part of the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
The TPU says its mission is to “protect the rights of rent-regulated tenants and provide information to both tenants and owners,” “increase compliance with and enforce rent-regulation laws,” and “detect landlords’ fraudulent acts and non-compliance with housing laws.” But though those intentions are noble, it is less clear how effective this unit has been for individual tenants.
The TPU has been instrumental in going after bad landlords, and says it has returned more than 28,000 apartments that were illegally deregulated to rent stabilization. But citing privacy rules, it won’t say where those apartments are. That angers many organizers, who say that it is likely that landlords who overcharged tenants in one building are also doing it in their other properties, and knowing where those overcharges were is vital for stopping others.
Landlords are not enthusiastic about the TPU either. They claim that its regulations put extra burdens on owners, especially smaller, less sophisticated ones in less profitable buildings, to the point where even simple clerical errors can lead to harassment charges.
Several housing nonprofits have had positive experiences with the unit. When rent-stabilized tenants in a Washington Heights building were being harassed by their landlord, they reached out to PA’LANTE Harlem, who contacted the TPU. All the attorneys in the unit attended the first meeting with tenants, and the landlord is now being investigated.
PA’LANTE director Elsia Vasquez says the TPU’s assistance has helped the organization gain “momentum” in rent-overcharge cases, and she has also seen a huge difference in buildings that had received rent reductions, but tenants were not aware of them. Though the unit “needs more staff,” she adds, it is beneficial “because for so many years tenants had no voice” at the state housing agency.
Kelley Boyd, another Washington Heights resident who worked with the TPU, was “not impressed,” saying it is too “resource-constrained” to do its job adequately. Boyd, who filed a complaint against her landlord in 2009 charging that he significantly pushed up the rent on her apartment by exaggerating the cost of a renovation, says there was not much the TPU could do for her.
“They are willing to do small things, but this is big theft,” Boyd says. Though she is glad that there is an agency devoted solely to protecting rent-stabilized tenants, she adds, “if they don’t battle for funding or change the culture,” their reach is limited. She is still fighting her landlord.
It seems that the Tenant Protection Unit, while designed to help people, is simply too small and underfunded to work with all of the rent-stabilized tenants who are being overcharged or are trying to get the state to enforce other aspects of the law. However, it is a small step in the pro-tenant direction.
Betsy Eichel is a tenant organizer with Housing Conservation Coordinators in Manhattan.