New Yorkers are no strangers to the noise and inconvenience of construction. However, many tenants in the city face construction that is threatening and dangerous beyond the norm: construction as harassment.
Some landlords use aggressive, disruptive and unsafe construction to drive rent-regulated tenants out of their homes.
The Department of Buildings’ mission is to promote safety by regulating the use of buildings and construction sites. Unfortunately, it often fails. Its apathy and sluggish response to tenant complaints allow landlords to game the system and get away with criminal conduct while risking the safety of residents.
In 2015, a study of tenants’ experiences around construction in their buildings found that among survey participants the average time between a complaint being filed and a DOB inspection was 42.5 days, according to Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition with research support from the Urban Justice Center.
As lawyers, we represent tenants who have had heat, gas and water cut off; their staircases demolished and toilets removed; and even the roofs over their heads pulled off buildings, as landlords tried to drive them out of their homes. Landlords claim that the miseries they inflict are necessary and only temporary, but tenants live in unsecured construction sites — sometimes for years — with no way to ensure that work gets done promptly and safely. The landlords, meanwhile, bank on the tenants getting so tired of untenable conditions that they will move out, paving the way to deregulate an apartment and leading to the loss of another affordable rental.
There are 12 bills pending before the City Council, that would, among other things, hold the DOB accountable for timely inspections, increase penalties for illegal construction, allow greater oversight of contractors who have engaged in unpermitted work, and create a safe-construction bill of rights. The bills were introduced in 2015. Today, five have yet to have a hearing and none have passed.
How much longer will elected officials allow landlords to use such practices?
Council leaders need to stand for tenants’ safety and affordable housing — instead of helping landlords pad their pockets.
Jane Li and Sherief Gaber are staff attorneys at the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center.