Brooklyn lawmakers push to criminalize ‘rent sabotage’

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A bill in the state legislature would criminalize the act of “rent sabotage,” making it a felony for landlords to destroy their own buildings in the hopes of forcing out tenants living in rent-controlled units.

The measure was introduced this month following continued reports of hostilities between renters and property owners in increasingly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods. Tenants who've spent many years in the same apartments without problems have accused landlords of sending in men with sledgehammers and power saws to make the properties unliveable.

“It's a situation that's ongoing within my district, where we have landlords that are basically destroying their properties so they can get rent-regulated tenants out of their apartments so they can get increased rents,” state Senator Martin Dilan, a Democrat, said of the practice.

The legislation is also sponsored by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, another Brooklyn Democrat.

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Currently, landlords may face a violation and pay a fine for damaging an apartment, Dilan said. His bill would make it a class D felony to damage rent-regulated housing, attached utilities or other “apparatus” connected to a unit with the the “intent to cause a rent regulated tenant to vacate a housing accommodation.” The legislation would include both instances where landlords intend to make a unit uninhabitable or merely “recklessly cause damage.”

“We're not talking about landlords who can't afford it,” Dilan said “We're talking about unscrupulous landlords who are just doing it for greed, and people looking to take advantage of the current situation.”

In many Brooklyn neighborhoods, market prices can be several times what some rent-regulated apartments cost.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to dramatically expand the number of affordable housing units in the city, pledging to create 200,000 homes for low- to moderate-income New Yorkers within a decade. But as the effort to add affordable housing ramps up, the city is also losing its stock of affordable housing through rent deregulation.

There are two different ways a rent-controlled apartment can be deregulated: The tenants have a total household income of more than $200,000 in each of the two preceding years, or the apartment is vacated. In both instances the legal regulated rent must exceed $2,500 per month. The processing of deregulated an apartment became tougher under the Rent Act of 2011.

Only several hundred apartments are deregulated each year because of income increases, while thousands are deregulated due to vacancy, according to the city's Rent Guidelines Board.

The rent sabotage bill has not been scheduled for any hearings yet.

In the Assembly, Lentol is the only sponsor. In the Senate, Dilan has four fellow Democrats backing the legislation. He said he hopes to get the bill passed by the end of the session, though he still needs to find Republican sponsors.