Crown Heights

Little-known rent reform law is big news for Crown Heights tenants

“All I did was go to work, pay my rent. I didn’t know that within my apartment I had rights.”

November 13, 2019 Emma Whitford
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When 25-year-old Genna DeSimone moved into her newly renovated apartment in Crown Heights last summer with two roommates, the arrangement felt “good enough,” even though the rent was a steep $3,100 for a three-bedroom and the building, on tree-lined Dean Street, had multiple empty units on each floor. “We said, ‘This is shady,’” she recalled. “‘We’ll just stay here for a year and find a new place next year.’”

Then this spring, DeSimone learned that her neighbor Flossie Bonaparte, who has lived in the building for more than 20 years, was injured when part of the ceiling in her apartment collapsed. DeSimone overheard some neighbors in the hallway discussing what had happened, and “how they were going to start meeting up.” There was talk of reconvening the tenant union.

Now DeSimone, Bonaparte and dozens of their rent-stabilized neighbors at 1151-1155 Dean St. have filed two suits against their landlord, Renaissance Realty. One alleges that Renaissance illegally inflated rents in renovated units. The other claims that the company has ignored dangerous conditions in unrenovated units.

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Together, the tenants are harnessing several new components of a sweeping package of reforms passed in Albany this June that are applicable to about one million New York City tenants. They’re also demonstrating how newly energized tenant organizations can forge multigenerational alliances.

“Because of the tenant association, I became empowered,” Bonaparte told the Brooklyn Eagle this fall. “Because all I did was go to work, pay my rent. I didn’t know that within my apartment I had rights.”

Tenants have more teeth in court

As rent overcharge plaintiffs, DeSimone and 24 of her neighbors across 11 apartments hope to benefit from a new law that has flown largely under the radar of news coverage and the public.

The law codifies tenants’ right to bring rent overcharge cases in Supreme Court. In doing so, they can put more pressure on landlords and sidestep the state’s severely backlogged Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

Their attorney, Ellery Ireland, believes that, taking into account possible damages and owed back rent, the group could win more than $1 million — between $24,000 and $214,000 per apartment.

“This case, if we had tried to take it in Supreme Court [before the latest reforms], they might have said, ‘You have to go to DHCR.’ And now they can skip that,” Ireland told the Eagle. “It’s a really technical aspect of the rent laws that’s huge.”

The exterior of 1151-1155 Dean St. in Crown Heights. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Before the rent regulation overhaul this year, a precedent-setting March 2017 ruling in Manhattan Supreme Court found that the DHCR has “primary jurisdiction” for overcharge cases. In other words, a judge could rule that Supreme Court was not the correct venue for an overcharge case, and send that case back to the state agency.

Now, the law states, venue is “subject to the tenant’s choice.”

The Unified Court System does not track the fate of overcharge cases. However, at least 18 were diverted back to the DHCR between August 2017 and June 2019 according to brief submitted to the Court of Appeals this summer. (It’s not yet clear how the new law will impact all of the overcharge cases that were already open when it took effect.)

It takes the DHCR’s Office of Rent Administration an average of two years just to assign an overcharge case to an examiner, according to a recent report by THE CITY. From there, it can take more than six months to process the case. The new rent laws are expected to worsen this backlog, though DHCR spokesperson Brian Butry says the office is implementing them “with thoughtful consideration and care.”

“I have a case with a client who filed an overcharge case with DHCR during the first term of Barack Obama and it’s still kicking around,” says Matthew Chachère, a staff attorney with Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. Legal Services, which represents tenants.

Attorney Adrienne Koch, who represents the landlords in the Manhattan case (full name, Collazo v. Netherland Property Assets LLC), argues that the DHCR is the correct venue for overcharge cases.

“It makes the most sense for the agencies with the expertise to address these issues in a uniform way,” she said, speaking generally and not on behalf of any client. Tenants can always turn to the courts if they are dissatisfied with the DHCR, she added.

Supreme Court is “a much better forum for tenants,” countered attorney Ronald Languedoc, who is representing the plaintiffs in Collazo, which is currently in appeals.

In Supreme Court, housing attorneys and advocates told the Eagle, tenants have the advantage of automatic pre-trial discovery, meaning landlords have to present receipts to back up suspiciously steep rent increases.

“Often times in cases when you bring it in Supreme you learn that the landlord has misrepresented costs, has misrepresented increases that the landlord took,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society.

Tenants can also band together in Supreme Court as joint plaintiffs to demonstrate a pattern of overcharges that points to fraud. The DHCR only accepts and investigates individual complaints. (Under the new rent laws, landlords who overcharge must cover their tenants’ attorneys fees; if a tenant lawyer requests an advance, group cases also lessen the individual burden.)

The court process can still take multiple years, attorneys say, but the results tend to favor tenants.

“Ask, ‘Why is it that landlords were making all these applications to send these cases to the DHCR?’” says Chachère. “Because they thought it was a better place to be.”

Power in numbers

While the Dean Street tenants’ overcharge case is underway, Bonaparte and several other long-term tenants are suing Renaissance for overdue apartment repairs. Old and new tenants have rallied together outside their buildings, and recently picketed their landlord’s house in Midwood.

“In the effort of fighting for our repairs we want to be a backbone for our newer tenants,” said Nneka Charles, 36, whose 62-year-old mother Christine has lived at 1155 Dean St. since 1994.

Nneka Charles reviews paperwork at a tenant association meeting in November. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Christine says she refused an $80,000 buyout in 2016, and has since struggled to get the landlord to repair her bathroom and cracks in the walls. Nneka won the city’s housing lottery two years ago and moved into a new apartment nearby, but is still an active member of the union. “It’s good that we have our little union, because … they don’t want us to talk to each other,” she said. “They don’t want us to know what’s going on.”

Renaissance Realty declined to comment on the repairs case, but provided a written statement on the overcharge case: “The Landlord has reviewed all of its records and find… that the rents charged to be in full [sic.] compliance of the law. We intend on mounting a rigorous defense, and expect to be fully vindicated by the courts.”

The camaraderie of the union inspired DeSimone to renew her lease after her first year on Dean Street. “My other roommates were interested in getting their own one-bedrooms, but when we were figuring out how it was going to go down we wanted to make sure at least one person stayed in this apartment,” she explained.

Attorneys say that they often prefer to take on group cases. “If you file a case on behalf of several people in the same building, you can accomplish more,” Languedoc said. “It’s more efficient. There’s a greater likelihood that you’ll find evidence of a scheme because you are able to compile evidence.”

Joel Feingold, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union who is advising the Dean Street tenants, says that the more tenants get involved, the more pressure they can put on the landlord to refund tenants and to make repairs. Tenants in one neighboring building in Crown Heights had some success with a public shaming campaign and an eventual rent strike.

“It’s a long process, depending on how hard the landlord wants to fight,” he said. “That’s why we need direct action to make sure that they can’t get away with it, they can’t stall in court.”

More to come

Attorneys told the Eagle that they expect to see more overcharge lawsuits in Brooklyn Supreme Court in the coming months. Not only do the new rent laws enshrine tenants’ right to go to court to recover money they overpaid in rent, they also help lawyers build stronger cases.

For example, under the old rent laws, tenants could only draw on four years of rent history to determine if their rent had been illegally inflated. Now they can search as far back as necessary to find an accurate rent. Tenants who are found to have been overcharged can also win up to six years of treble damages, or triple the amount of rent owed. Under the old laws, the maximum for treble damages was two years.

Davidson of the Legal Aid Society also notes that the new rent laws enshrine tenants’ so-called “preferential” rents. Roughly a third of all rent stabilized tenants pay such arbitrary rents, which are below the actual, or “legal,” rent listed on their leases. In DeSimone’s case, Renaissance Realty originally told her that the actual rent on her apartment was $4,604.42, though she would be charged a preferential rent of $3,200.

Until this year, landlords could revoke preferential rents at will.

“It was really risky to complain because they could lose those rents,” Davidson said. “I think there’s going to be a lot more challenges … now that people have the right to keep their preferential rent, and I think we’re going to find that a huge percentage of those ‘legal’ rents were made up out of whole cloth.”

Not a silver bullet

Forming a union and managing the logistics of two group lawsuits is not easy, tenants acknowledge. DeSimone’s sister Devon, 26, moved in with her this year from another apartment in the neighborhood where tenant organizing efforts faltered. “There were way fewer long-term tenants,” she recalled. “They were mostly gone at that point, and the young people moving in weren’t particularly interested.”

Even the Dean Street tenant union has struggled to bring in all of their neighbors, according to the elder Charles, Nneka’s mother.

“The young people are moving in and they won’t say hello to the older people they meet,” Charles said. “And this is where they can be lost because we can inform them of the things that’s happening within our building. Because we’ve been here so long, you know?”

The Dean Street tenants meet regularly in the lobby of 1151 Dean St. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Ireland, the Dean Street tenants’ attorney, is confident that the overcharge case will prevail. But he’s more pragmatic about the repairs case. “It’s really, really hard to get your apartment repaired,” he said. “I think the problem is really the enforcement.”

He also acknowledges the possibility that the landlord may not have the money to pay his overcharged tenants. Ireland also represents a group of tenants in Clinton Hill, whose landlord is currently in bankruptcy proceedings, putting the overcharge case on hold. “There’s a practical aspect of, where does the money come from?” Ireland said.

At minimum, he added, tenants can expect to eventually have their rents rolled back. Ideally those rents would remain affordable for generations of tenants to come.

At a recent meeting in the lobby of 1151 Dean St., tenants said that regardless of the outcome of these cases, they’re glad to be organizing.

“I don’t think that any of us would have regrets about the time that we’re spending,” said Latonia Gray, 50, who has lived in the buildings her entire life. “If we win, yay. If we lose, okay we tried. But we’ve been learning a lot actually, as well.”

If the landlord finds a new way to make life difficult, Gray said, “We know what we’re supposed to do.”

Emma Whitford is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. You can follow her work on Twitter

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  1. Cease Desist

    I have been harassed, assaulted and worse because I chose to speak up years ago about faulty wiring in my apartment that the Landlord refused to correct with a Licensed electrician or a Licensed plumber just random handymen using guess work and plaster. In court for YEARS, while they defamed my character, I was injured in the apartment due to lack of services instead of fixing anything they decided to attempt to evict me multiple times…still living here with lighting fixtures hanging by electrical wiring and plaster EVERYWHERE…did I mention I’m on a fixed income?