Owner Signs Comprehensive Agreement with Tenant Protection Unit to Protect Rights of Largely Caribbean-American and African-American Tenants in Central Brooklyn
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that the State’s Tenant Protection Unit has signed an agreement that will end the reported harassment and intimidation of long-term tenants at several rent-regulated buildings in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights. The landlord of these buildings, Yeshaya Wasserman, had purportedly been engaging in a pattern of abusive behavior and flagrant violation of rent laws.
“Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to live and this administration will not tolerate landlords who seek to harass and bully tenants out of their homes,” Governor Cuomo said. “We created the Tenant Protection Unit to make it clear to all landlords that the State would hold them accountable for their actions. This settlement is tough, fair and should serve as a reminder that our administration is not afraid to stand up for all New Yorkers.”
The steps outlined in the agreement cover Wasserman’s entire portfolio and include: changing the owner’s business policies and procedures to ensure future compliance with rent laws; monitoring the landlord's practices for up to three years by an independent monitor at the owner’s expense; and the establishment of a fund to compensate mistreated tenants. The agreement is similar to one the TPU previously signed with Castellan Real Estate Partners, a settlement announced by Governor Cuomo in January.
"The TPU has done it again,” said Darryl C. Towns, Commissioner/CEO of New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), which includes the TPU. “In the face of rapidly changing New York City neighborhoods, today’s announcement continues the TPU’s efforts and will help stem the loss of affordable housing in working and middle-class neighborhoods by addressing illegality and ensuring that long-term tenants can stay in their homes if they so choose. Landlords who violate the State’s rent laws should know that thanks to the Governor and the TPU, they are being watched and will be held accountable."
In October 2013, the TPU served a subpoena on Wasserman, a landlord who was reportedly violating the rights of long-term rent-regulated tenants in Flatbush and Crown Heights. The subpoena demanded documents and records from Homewood Gardens and seven other properties with approximately 180 units, owned and managed by Wasserman.
Long-term tenants at Homewood Gardens (651-667 Brooklyn Avenue, 652-668 Brooklyn Avenue and 416-444 Hawthorne Street), most of whom are African-American or Caribbean-American, contacted the TPU through the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. They claimed the landlord was victimizing them by failing to cash rent checks, pressuring tenants to vacate their apartments, and subjecting tenants to frivolous housing court proceedings.
The TPU noted that these practices mostly affected long-term tenants, some of whom have lived in their apartments for more than twenty years and have built a strong and close-knit community. Their allegations included that the landlord had held and not cashed rent checks (in hopes that tenants wouldn’t have the necessary back rent when they were eventually brought to housing court), had ignored or delayed requests for repairs, had done shoddy repair work or offered meager buyouts to have tenants vacate their apartments.
Additionally, in April 2014, the tenants of Homewood Gardens, who are largely black, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that Wasserman was trying to force them out to collect higher rents from more affluent white tenants. That case, brought by South Brooklyn Legal Services, is separate from today’s TPU announcement and is still ongoing.
As part of the TPU’s broad-based corporate compliance settlement model, Wasserman and his company are required to take the following actions:
- Hire a monitor (to be paid for by Wasserman and approved by the TPU) for up to three years to ensure compliance with the new policies and procedures of the settlement agreement. The monitor will audit all rents set by the landlord following a vacancy to ensure that affordable apartments remain in the system where appropriate. Like the overall agreement, the TPU approved monitor’s purview will be the landlord’s entire portfolio of buildings, including those he may purchase in the course of the agreement’s term.
- Establish a monetary fund of $60,000, administered by the TPU approved monitor, to compensate tenants who may have been subject to wrongful conduct.
- Establish new written business policies and procedures that address the landlord’s previous improper actions, and protect all current and future tenants from possible future abuse and violations of law.
- Have all of its employees undergo training (at Wasserman’s expense) to prevent future potential abuses of tenants and ensure the landlord’s accountability.
Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, Chair of the New York State Assembly Housing Committee, said, "I strongly support protecting the rights of tenants against unscrupulous landlords who threaten the affordability of our housing stock. The Governor’s TPU is just what the people of the State of New York need and deserve. I commend the TPU for acting expeditiously to protect these tenants and for holding a landlord accountable for his bad acts."
Assemblyman Karim Camara, who chairs the Black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and Asian Legislative Caucus and whose district incorporates many of Wasserman’s buildings, said, “This is exactly why I have personally championed the efforts of the Governor’s TPU in the Assembly – because they get results for the people of New York. Keep going, TPU.”
Advocacy groups who work with tenants and immigrant communities also praised the settlement as an important continued effort in protecting tenants’ rights.
Edward Josephson, Director of Litigation, South Brooklyn Legal Services said, “We are delighted to have worked with the TPU to fight this type of discriminatory and abusive behavior in Brooklyn neighborhoods to protect long-term tenants and communities. Harassment by landlords that violates the law will not be tolerated. Now, all tenants who suffer at hands of bad landlords have another protector in Governor Cuomo and his Tenant Protection Unit.”
Aga Trojniak from the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, which worked with the TPU on the investigation, said, “For tenants who have been suffering and struggling with harassment, knowing that Governor Cuomo’s TPU was involved as a real partner provided immeasurable relief for tenants. The relief is not just for the tenants of one bad landlord – it extends to other tenants who may similarly be tormented by an abusive landlord. Tenants and advocates now have another avenue for help thanks to the Governor.”
Benjamin Dulchin, Executive Director, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, said, “I commend the Governor and the TPU for stepping in to protect the tenants in these buildings and recognizing the need to address the displacement of long-term residents. It is imperative that government enforces the rent regulation laws to keep tenants in their homes. I look forward to continuing to work with the Governor and the TPU to address this problem as we tackle the renewal of the Rent Regulation Laws in 2015.”
The TPU was created by Governor Cuomo in 2012 and in the two years since its inception, TPU investigators, auditors and attorneys have recaptured more than 33,000 units that landlords had failed to register and restored them to rent regulation, saving the State hundreds of millions in rehabilitation and reconstruction costs. The TPU’s larger “pattern-and-practice” investigation/settlement model has been successful in neighborhoods where landlords have a strong incentive to raise rents and displace long-term tenants through illegal means.
Since its creation, the Unit has also:
- Commenced the first ever mass audit of landlords, challenging their claims for Individual Apartment Improvements and requiring itemized bills to substantiate the real costs of any improvement. These added improvements can be used to raise an apartment's rent over the $2,500 rent threshold, allowing it to exit regulation.
- Initiated audits which resulted in restoring more than $600,000 in overcharges to tenants who did not know they were paying more than required by the Rent Laws.
- Announced an historic settlement in January 2014 against a landlord who was harassing and intimidating tenants with limited English proficiency in Upper Manhattan.
- Assisted New York State Homes and Community Renewal in the eligibility determination of potential landlords for entitlement to state loans, grants and tax credits, by investigating and vetting a potential landlord's financial soundness and mortgage holdings for signs of overleveraging within their portfolios or allegations of increased tenant turnover through harassment.
- Collaborated with various City agencies to form a joint task force to address the deregulation and destruction of rent-regulated apartments in North Brooklyn and other neighborhoods throughout the City.
- Assisted in the implementation of new rent regulations at the beginning of 2014 to support the new rent laws, by: clarifying how apartment improvements are calculated and verified; raising the deregulation rent threshold; raising the income threshold; and limiting vacancy bonuses to only one per year, thereby reducing the ability of a landlord to move tenants in and out of a unit several times a year with the sole purpose of adding vacancy bonuses that could move units past the $2,500 deregulation threshold.
The Unit’s actions, along with the strengthening of the rent laws in 2011 by Governor Cuomo, have turned the deregulation tide, with far fewer units now leaving the system. Combined with the HCR-subsidized construction of 6,000 rent-regulated units since the Governor took office, the number of rent-regulated units in New York State is now growing.