Tenants’ advocate office will not hire staff despite 2017 legislation

The city Department of Buildings says its current staff can handle required tenant advocacy work.
The city Department of Buildings says its current staff can handle required tenant advocacy work. Photo Credit: Noah Fecks

More than six months after the mayor signed a law mandating the creation of an Office of the Tenant Advocate, the department charged with overseeing the office argues it is not legally obligated to hire staff for the division — and it has not taken clear steps to establish it.

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation in August ushering in an Office of the Tenant Advocate at the city Department of Buildings. The measure was part of a legislative package that addressed construction harassment — attempts to push out rent-regulated tenants by making their apartments unlivable while work is underway.

During a City Council budget hearing last week, city Department of Buildings officials said the department did not plan to request funding for staff at the Office of the Tenant Advocate.

Rick Chandler, the department’s commissioner, said it would “revisit” its budgetary requests, “but that doesn’t change that we have been doing tenant advocacy, tenant harassment work long before the law was passed — successfully, in my opinion. And we are doing it now.”

After the hearing, a department spokesman said the law did not require the Department of Buildings to hire staff for the Office of the Tenant Advocate.

“We are currently complying with the law and the required duties are being handled by (Department of Building’s) Building Marshal with support from other units within the department,” Andrew Rudansky, a department spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Rudansky declined to answer questions about what steps the Department of Buildings has taken to establish the Office of the Tenant Advocate and explain why it has not requested funding for the division.

City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who co-sponsored the legislation in question, said lawmakers would not have passed the law if the department’s work on behalf of tenants had been sufficient.

She pointed out that the Council had recommended at least two staff positions for the Office of the Tenant Advocate, which is charged with monitoring tenant protection plans during construction and establishing a system to receive and respond to comments, questions and complaints about the plans.

“To me that answer is too cute by half,” Rosenthal said of the department’s legal interpretation. “It tells me the Department of Buildings (doesn’t) believe in the law.”

It would be beneficial to have staff at the Department of Buildings who are responsible for helping the average New Yorker navigate technical rules and regulations, according to Samantha Kattan, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

The tenant advocacy organization often fields questions from residents about construction legality and permits, Kattan said.

“It will be really helpful to have a person or office to contact about these questions that understands how this is playing out for tenants,” Kattan said.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and the mayor’s office declined to comment.

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