PROGRESS REPORT: Time to intensify fight against bad landlords

Erik Coler is helping crack down on landlords who skirt the rent-regulation laws.
Erik Coler is helping crack down on landlords who skirt the rent-regulation laws.

BY ERIK COLER | The first time Aaron Carr tried to explain what a state-issued J-51 tax credit was to me, I had no idea what he was talking about. He might as well have been speaking in another language to me.

Aaron, a close friend of mine, had recently left his job as a chief of staff to an assemblymember to start his own nonprofit.

He sat me down and told me about his great idea, something that he had encountered working in the state Assembly but could not take on working from within the system: bad landlords who break the law by taking advantage of the good-faith-based system of tax credits.

Aaron took the time to explain that what he wanted to do was go after landlords with his new nonprofit, the Housing Rights Initiative. How he would do that was the ingenious part.

New York State issues a tax credit to landlords called a J-51. This credit is issued for those who used their money to fix up their buildings, doing major repairs, boilers, exteriors, etc. The owner receives huge tax breaks. However, as a rule, 100 percent of his or her units must be rent stabilized.

The problem that we are facing in the Village today is that we have a lot of bad landlords who will either try and make it hard for the tenants or outright break the law by illegally taking their units out of rent stabilization or harassing their tenants into leaving. I will stress that not all landlords are bad or break the law. But it is important that we take on bad landlords that we do know are breaking the law.

Aaron had the idea that instead of waiting for landlords to take units out of rent stabilization and then wait for the government to rectify the problem, he would start organizing tenants to fight for their units. He would take a proactive approach, figuring out which landlords were breaking the law, through using public information, and organizing tenants building-wide, and then suing the landlord to return the units to the system.

So far, Aaron has been wildly successful. In his first year he has already organized four lawsuits, one of which is the second-largest tenant lawsuit in the history of New York City.

We have a state government that has a reactive approach to landlords that break the law. In New York State, abusing the J-51 tax credit means, if you are a tenant, the burden is on you to find your rental history, understand the complexity of the laws of the tax credits, and file the complaint. It is ridiculous to have a government expect people to be able to be to have the time to do this and be experts in the law. The burden to fight illegal violations of rent stabilization should be on the landlord, not the tenant.

As president of the Village Independent Democrats, I am focusing our attention on proactively fighting bad landlords. We are starting to organize tenants in buildings who we know specifically receive tax credits, or who harass tenants, and or break the law in any form. We will fight by suing, educating or pressuring the landlords to do right by their tenants. We will go to the buildings that we know are breaking the law and inform tenants and organize them.

We host a free housing clinic every Wednesday at 6 p.m. at our clubhouse, in the basement of 26 Perry St., and are consistently going after bad landlords. However, we as a community need to be proactive in fighting bad landlords, and take the fight directly to them. We in the Village need to use our rights that we have as tenants to fight back.

Coler is president, Village Independent Democrats, and member, Community Board 2

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