Commercial Tenants Have New Protection Against Landlord Harassment

September 25, 2019

City Council Legislation Aims to Expand the Definition of Commercial Tenant Harassment

United for Small Business NYC (USBNYC) is pleased to see the passage of Intro 1410-B, an expansion of the commercial tenant anti-harassment legislation sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, which broadens and redefines commercial tenant harassment, increases civil penalties for landlords that commit commercial tenant harassment, and allows a court to reject approvals for renew documents for certain types of construction work by owners. USBNYC applauds the City Council for taking a city step forward toward protecting New York’s non-residential tenants from displacement.

USBNYC is a citywide coalition of community organizations across New York City fighting to protect New York’s small businesses and non-residential tenants from the threat of displacement. USBNYC fights for the protection of small businesses, the establishment of commercial tenant rights, and the empowerment of our communities with the tools necessary to advance an equitable economic future. The constant threat of harassment and displacement affects commercial tenants just as much as it affects residential tenants, and we celebrate Council Member Gibson’s legislation, which will help the City’s most vulnerable small businesses fight back against unscrupulous landlords.

The legislation expands existing protections against landlord harassment that City Council enacted in 2016. The new law raises the civil penalty for unlawful acts to a maximum of $50,000 per property, enables the court to deny a harassing landlord’s construction plans at the building until the harassment has ceased, and expands prohibited landlord actions to include making discriminatory threats (e.g., age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), requesting citizenship status, and interfering with a tenant’s construction or repairs.

Immigrants run 48% of all of New York City’s small businesses and an average of 26% of New Yorkers work at a small business. In a report released earlier this year by the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD), 40% of surveyed immigrant-owned small businesses reported being harassed by their landlords. Protecting small businesses means protecting New York City’s immigrant population and vice versa. When immigrant small businesses vanish, so too do jobs, community spaces, and affordable goods and services in poor communities of color. We look forward to further working with the New York City Council to develop even more protections for our City’s small businesses and non-residential tenants.

“With the mass proliferation of development across New York City, small businesses and commercial tenants have very little protections to safeguard them from the effects of changing neighborhoods. Landlords can often take advantage of such changes to pressure and harass commercial tenants out of their spaces, leading to vast amounts of commercial tenant displacement in neighborhoods they’ve established legacies in,” said Council Member Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx’s 16th Council District. “This bill takes a holistic and fair approach to punishing devious landlords, while allowing lawful landlords to continue providing safe spaces for their commercial tenants to thrive. I thank Speaker Corey Johnson for his leadership, and Council Member Mark Gjonaj, Chair of the Small Business Committee. I also extend my gratitude to the entire Legislative Division team at the City Counsel for assisting with this piece of legislation as well as all of the organizations part of the United Small Business NYC coalition for their persistence and advocacy for commercial tenant rights in New York City.”

“Small business displacement is cultural displacement. Like residential tenants, small business owners suffer from landlord harassment and the City Council’s support for expanded protections is a step in the right direction to fostering equitable economic development in our communities,” said Arthur Kats, Senior Staff Attorney with the Microenterprise Project at Volunteers of Legal Service.

“The harassment of commercial tenants in New York City is an ongoing contributor to the displacement of minority and immigrant-owned spaces,” said Samantha Rauer, Senior Staff Attorney with the Community and Economic Development Program at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. “Brooklyn A has worked with many clients whose businesses have suffered due to landlord misconduct, but who were not protected by the prior bill language. Because of the expanded definition of harassment, more small business owners will now have meaningful legal protection against discriminatory and predatory landlord practices.”

“It’s great to see this law move against requiring that commercial tenants prove that their landlord intended to harass them,” said Julian Hill, Supervising Attorney for TakeRoot Justice’s Capacity Building Practice. “Proving intent can be an unnecessarily high bar, and lowering it increases the likelihood that small business owners have at least some of the protection they deserve.”

"Tenant harassment is a building-wide issue, from the storefront to the top floor of a walk-up. It should come as no surprise that the same bad acting landlords who harass residential tenants are also harassing their non-residential tenants," said Abigail Ellman, Director of Planning and Development at the Cooper Square Committee. "After Icon Community United organized to shine a light on Icon Realty Management, owner of nearly 100 buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Attorney General investigated and, in 2017, Icon paid $500,000 in settlement fees. Yet two years later, residents, businesses and non-profit tenants in several of their buildings say that their landlord hasn't changed. Without meaningful penalties or enforcement, many corporate landlords use harassment as part of their business model. The higher fines in this amended law are an encouraging step toward stronger non-residential tenant protections."

Isiah Michael, owner of the Classic Man Barber Lounge and former Icon commercial tenant, describes how Icon interfered with his business. “We executed and started the buildout process for Classic Man Barber Lounge in October 2017. We were immediately dealing with material issues and risks produced by Icon Management’s team and contractors. We spent several weeks and accumulated excess cost completing the plumbing system that was supposed to be finished by Icon. Our HVAC unit was not installed and completed until March 2018, even though it was a condition on our lease. Icon initiated a major electrical project in our basement with no prior notice, resulting in over $50,000 of business and personal property damages. Unfortunately, Icon Realty Management’s harassment and gross negligence barred us from operating as a New York City small business; but this strengthened anti-harassment legislation will give other commercial tenants better opportunities to fight against similar threats of displacement."

“Small business displacement - whether it’s a brick-and-mortar or a street vendor - is cultural displacement,” said Mohamed Attia, director of the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center. “Both vendors and brick-and-mortar tenants face harassment because of speculation and displacement pressures in our communities. No one should have to worry about how they can make a living.”

“When we talk about commercial tenants we talk about our beloved diners, local stores, and thriving creative spaces. These businesses give us important services, but they also become the places where we come together as a community. It’s high time that we enact legislation that protects commercial tenants from harassment and capricious landlords," said Olympia Kazi, NYC Artist Coalition.

"Immigrant small business owners have been facing harassment and displacement at the hands of unscrupulous landlords for too long in our city. The South Asian and Indo-Caribbean small businesses that Chhaya works with are particularly vulnerable as our communities face rapid gentrification and real estate speculation,” said Annetta Seecharran, Executive Director of Chhaya CDC. “We are excited to see the city increasing protections against commercial tenant harassment. This bill will give communities like ours a fighting chance in our resistance against cultural displacement."

“Both residential and nonresidential tenants across New York City face the threat of harassment and displacement as a result of speculation. Nonresidential tenants have had few protections available to them until very recently. While the first iteration of the commercial tenant anti-harassment legislation, passed in 2016, was a step in the right direction, it clearly needed to be strengthened in order to create meaningful protections for small businesses and commercial tenants. Immigrant tenants were, in particular, vulnerable to landlord harassment,” said Lena Afridi, Director of Policy at the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD). “An expanded definition of tenant harassment that includes harassment based on immigration status, coupled with stronger penalties on unscrupulous landlords, is a step forward in holding bad landlords accountable and establishing a system of truly meaningful protections to end the displacement of the nonresidential tenants who are vital to neighborhood economies.”

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