NYC extends “no harassment” certification program to restrict building permits where tenants are harassed

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new york construction skyline
Vornado Realty Trust's rendering of the proposed new New York skyline . The developer is associated with the Empire Station Complex proposal.

New York City Council has voted to expand a three-year-old pilot program intended to curb displacement by denying construction permits to landlords with a history of tenant harassment.

The Certification of No Harassment (CONH) Program has forced owners of certain properties, including distressed buildings and sites with a history of housing violations or vacate orders, to prove they have not harassed tenants before receiving a permit from the Department of Buildings for demolition or major kitchen, bathroom and unit renovations, CityLimits reports.

The city tested the concept with a pilot program in 2018, covering buildings in 11 community districts in Northern Manhattan, the East Bronx, Northern Brooklyn and the Rockaways, as well as community districts that overlap with neighborhood-level rezonings.

The new legislation extends those CONH protections citywide, and guarantees a payment of at least $5,000 to tenants in buildings where an application was denied, as long as tenants seek relief through housing courts.

“In those cases where a landlord or a developer has the strategy of using harassment to vacate or nearly vacate a building in order to do a gut renovation or demolition, the tools we’ve had traditionally just aren’t powerful enough,” said Council member Brad Lander, the bill’s sponsor. “Luckily, it’s a relatively rare practice that an owner will harass for the full vacancy of a building, but it happens and this is a good strong tool.”

Construction itself has also been used as a form of harassment, with property owners starting disruptive renovations as a means to get tenants out of rent-regulated units, CityLimits reported.

“Under the existing program, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) notifies tenants, local elected officials and community groups that a property owner has applied for certification to start construction work,” the published report says. “HPD then conducts an investigation going back five years. If no instances of harassment are uncovered, the agency issues a CONH that allows the landlord to receive a permit from the Department Of Buildings.”

If HPD identifies a “reasonable” history of harassment during the five-year lookback period, officials can commence a hearing before the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, allowing the property owners and tenants to make their case to a judge.

The Coalition Against Tenant Harassment (CATHnyc), a collection of tenants rights groups that has pushed for the citywide expansion, says it has tracked records indicating that HPD has so far received 55 applications. The agency approved 27 for certification and denied seven.  Meanwhile, property owners withdrew another 13 applications. The rest are still pending.

Alex Fennell, senior political organizer with the Association of Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), and other members of CATHnyc say the pilot has had an impact in the target areas by helping stem common forms of harassment. These unwelcome measures include late-night construction or heat and electricity cut-offs, that some property owners have deployed to drive residents out of their apartments and raise rents on the vacant units.

In addition to the expansion and potential tenant reimbursements, the new legislation adds a stipulation denying permits or rescinding them from property owners who begin construction work without first applying for CONH.

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