Dealing with a Menacing Landlord

Q.    For 12 years, I’ve lived in the same apartment in a brownstone. In the last year, it seems like my elderly landlord has developed dementia. He began leaving me notices, claiming I owed him back rent. I showed him and his lawyer 24 months of canceled checks, but they began eviction proceedings against me anyway. Then my landlord became violent, punching my roommate before pushing his way into our apartment, where he menaced and threatened us, swinging a chair at me. When the police finally showed up, my roommate declined to press charges, but asked that the landlord be evaluated at a hospital. He was back home within two hours, cursing at me again. His daughter, who also lives in the building, has done nothing. My roommate moved out and I’m considering moving out, but I want to know what my next steps should be. My rent is a fraction of what apartments rent for in the neighborhood, and I suspect the apartment is rent regulated, but I am not certain. Should I cut my losses and get out? Sue for harassment? Or, knowing he’s a danger to the other tenants, try and get him removed from running the building?

A.    Your landlord may or may not have dementia, but he is certainly harassing you and your roommate, a practice that has become increasingly common as some landlords attempt to drive out longtime tenants in the quest for higher rent. Just consider his lawyer’s behavior: The lawyer is willing to begin eviction proceedings against a tenant who he knows has paid the rent. Dementia or not, those are some pretty aggressive tactics.

“Harassment is harassment and the court has the ability to interfere,” said Harvey Epstein, the director of the community development project at the Urban Justice Center.

First, consider your immediate safety. Regardless of the type of lease you hold, you can seek an order of protection, commonly known as a restraining order, against your landlord in Kings County criminal court, according to David A. Kaminsky, a real estate lawyer. This would protect you from continued harassment. Ultimately, you need to decide if you want to stay, despite the stress of living there. If your apartment is rent regulated – which is certainly possible – and you leave, you will be relinquishing a valuable asset, and your next apartment will undoubtedly be more expensive.

Consult with a lawyer who is well versed in rent regulation rules to figure out the status of the apartment, as it can be difficult to determine. If your apartment is, in fact, market rate, moving might be your only option. And although you could theoretically still sue your landlord for harassment after you leave, your damages would be minimal. “It would probably not be worth the effort,” Mr. Kaminsky said.

But if your lease is rent regulated, you have some tools at your disposal. File a harassment complaint with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent-regulated apartments. At the same time, file a harassment claim and what is known as an Article 7a proceeding in housing court. The court could ultimately remove the landlord from managing the building – even if he owns it – and replace him with a court-appointed administrator. But in order to bring the 7a proceeding against the landlord, you would need at least one-third of the tenants to sign onto the case. So start talking to other tenants in the building about your experiences and see if they have stories of harassment, too.

New York Times Q&A orignally published in New York Times on September 26, 2015.

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