‘That happened to me’

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  • Sharon Canns, pictured on her balcony last fall after she was charged for repairs she says were never finished. She and several other tenant advocates attribute many rent-stabilized housing issues to lack of oversight by the DHCR. Photo: Madeleine Thompson

Tenant advocates take aim at state’s department of housing

By Madeleine Thompson

“Is [the Department of Homes and Community Renewal] getting worse?” So read the subject line of an email to roughly 500 subscribers on an affordable housing information list, which frequently boosts local news and inquiries like this one that came from attorney David Hershey-Webb. “In the last year it seems as though there have been an increasing number of bad decisions and incompetence from DHCR,” he wrote. “Anyone else having this experience?”

Hershey-Webb, of the firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph LLP, had still more harsh words for the state-run agency, which was established to “build, preserve and protect affordable housing and increase home-ownership” according to its website. “I have noticed, over the last three or four years in particular, growing problems in regard to due process, in regard to the thoroughness with which they review rent-increase applications,” he said. “On too many occasions they interpret the laws in a way that leads to the loss of rent stabilized housing.” The department did not respond to request for comment.

Some of the incidents he cited include granting landlords’ major capital improvements (MCIs) without giving tenant associations enough time to respond, allowing landlords too much time to correct hazardous violations, not considering tenants’ arguments against MCIs, not sending inspectors when necessary and misfiling or losing paperwork.

Sharon Canns spoke to the Spirit last fall about an MCI in her building on the Upper West Side, for which residents were charged even though the improvements were not finished. Major capital improvements are one way for landlords to raise the rent on stabilized apartments, but they are required to complete the improvements before applying to DHCR for the MCI. “I don’t know what DHCR is doing,” Canns said in exasperation. She has been fighting her landlord, Stellar Management, since its MCI was approved last September with no success. “It feels like it’s happening just to you, but then when you start listening you start hearing other people saying ‘no, that happened to me,” Canns said.

A study conducted by ProPublica this past April found that landlords have been exploiting a loophole that allows them to manipulate rents and hike them drastically without notice. While this practice is made legal by a 2003 state law, it is enabled by DHCR’s lack of oversight. “Landlords are supposed to set the maximum legal rents in accordance with the stabilization rules, which include allowances for renovations, annual rent hikes and other factors,” the article states. “They submit the maximum legal and preferential rents each year to [DHCR]. But the division rarely checks to make sure the legal maximums are in compliance. When it supplies an apartment’s rent history to a tenant, it provides a disclaimer: ‘DHCR does not attest to the truthfulness of the owner’s statements or the legality of the rents reported in this document.’”

Hershey-Webb suggested the agency’s problems might be caused by understaffing. Its website currently lists 13 positions for which it is hiring, and it disclaims that there may be more available. Harvey Epstein, a tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board and a project director at the Urban Justice Center, said the agency is complicated and its rules are often communicated in a way that tenants don’t understand. “I think the root of the problem is that [DHCR’s] mission is a defensive mission instead of an affirmative mission to help rent stabilized tenants maintain affordability,” he said. However, he doesn’t necessarily think the agency has gotten worse recently. “It’s just never been good and it’s still not good,” he said.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at newsreporter@strausnews.com

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