Three City Laws Aim to Curb Buyouts

Three new city laws intended to prevent landlords from harassing tenants into taking money to leave their apartments were signed into effect by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sept. 3.

The practice is common in gentrifying neighborhoods, where landlords believe they can use vacancy deregulation to get rents of $2,700 or more if they could only persuade the current tenants to leave. Some owners hire “tenant relocation specialists” to deliver the buyout offers, repeatedly and forcefully. “Rent-regulated tenants routinely face harassment,” Brandon Kielbasa of the Cooper Square Committee told the Associated Press. The buyouts offered may seem like large sums, but usually aren’t enough to cover the higher rent a tenant would have to pay in a new apartment for more than a year or two.

“We won’t let tenants be intimidated and forced out of their homes,” de Blasio said in a statement. “These new laws protect tenants from harassment and aggressive buyout schemes, and simultaneously help the city keep neighborhoods affordable.”

“We cannot allow tenant relocators that use dishonest methods to get tenants out of their apartments to continue that practice,” added City Councilmember Rafael Espinal (D-Brooklyn). “As the representative of Bushwick, where we are seeing hundreds of tenants lured and bullied to accept ridiculous buyout offers, I know firsthand the negative impact that it has on families and vulnerable individuals that are trying to hold on to the limited affordable housing stock in our community.”

Intro 682-A, sponsored by Daniel Garodnick (D-Manhattan) would set up a system to license such tenant-relocation specialists and “agencies”—the landlords who hire them. Applicants would have to pass an exam, furnish a surety bond, and pay a licensing fee, and both they and their employers would be responsible for any violations of the law. It would require them to make their initial offer to tenants in writing and inform tenants that they have the right to refuse it. 

The practices it bars as harassment include threatening or intimidating tenants and their families or roommates, or using “profane or obscene language”; communicating with them “with such frequency, at such unusual hours, or in such a manner as can reasonably be expected to abuse or harass such person”; contacting them at work without permission; and continuing to offer buyouts after the tenant has said no. It also prohibits contacting tenants under false pretenses or giving them false or misleading information. 

Intro 700, sponsored by Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), defines it as harassment to offer a buyout without disclosing that the person making the offer is an agent of the landlord, and without notifying the tenant that he or she has the right to say no and stay in their apartment, to contact a lawyer, and to refuse to be bothered about a buyout for the next 180 days. It also outlaws changing or destroying locks to prevent a legitimate tenant from getting into their apartment—or removing locks or doors to prevent them from keeping others out.

Intro. 757-A, sponsored by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, codifies that 180-day limit, making it illegal for an owner to make a buyout offer within 180 days of a tenant explicitly refusing one, unless the tenant states in writing that they’re interested in talking about one again. 

Landlord lawyer Sherwin Belkin told the AP that the six-month limit “prohibits what can be purely benign, non-threatening, non-intimidating—what should be protected free speech.” 

The city, however, does not have the power to eliminate the main incentive for landlords to offer buyouts and harass tenants: the state vacancy-decontrol law, which allows unlimited rent increases and eliminates tenants’ right to renew their leases in vacant apartments that rent for $2,700 or more.