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NYC Tenant Harassment During COVID-19

Resolved Publication Fall 2020

For some New York City residents, COVID-19 has caused immense financial strain that has impacted their ability to make rent each month; both residential and commercial tenants are finding themselves in this position. To protect these ailing tenants, the City of New York instituted alterations to the tenant harassment law and has extended the halt on eviction proceedings.

Initially, the unclarified breadth of this clause has caused confusion in the legal arena. But with a rise in tensions between landlords and corporate tenants, the clause was narrowed on September 30th, 2020. For residents, the tenant harassment law provides protection for any instances wherein a landlord attempts to force or intimidate a tenant to leave the lease. Such attempts include changing the locks on all doors to an apartment or imposing a physical barrier to prevent tenants from accessing the property.

One frightening prospect for those unable to pay rent is the possibility of being evicted from their apartment. Under normal circumstances, not paying rent would be proper grounds for eviction. During the pandemic, however, Governor Cuomo put a halt on eviction proceedings. This policy protects tenants by preventing COVID-19 impacted evictions from being processed until the new year. Many New York City residents are grateful for the time they have been given but note that the ongoing circumstances in the city are limiting the availability of both open jobs and leases, adding another stressful layer to their housing crisis.

The harassment law has implications for commercial tenants, too. In one recent case, Victoria’s Secret is claiming that the changes impacted by the coronavirus have made it impossible for them to pay their rent. As a nonessential business, Victoria’s Secret closed its in-person and online shops in March. Consequently, the business was unable to turn in a profit and paying that month’s rent felt unfair.

Critics argue that this law allows large corporations to take advantage of the pandemic to break their leases and get a head start on adapting to the new shopping world post-COVID. This suspicion was cast on the Victoria’s Secret case when the company turned down an offer from its landlord to defer part of the company’s rent payment to a later date, instead opting for litigation. For smaller businesses, though, this addendum could be useful in staying afloat when sales are at an all-time low.

Tensions between landlords and tenants are at an all-time high during this era of shutdowns and uncertainty. Many landlords rent properties themselves, meaning they have their own rents to pay using parts of the payments of their tenants. This creates a doomed, backlogged system. Eventually, the tools that the City of New York has implemented are going to be absolved and rent issues will manifest themselves head-on. For now, though, the harassment law coupled with the eviction moratorium are a powerful protection against the aggressions of unsympathetic landlords.

References

Chapter 9: Non-Residential Tenant Harassment.” Code Library. American Legal Publishing Corporation, May 2020.

Eviction Moratorium and Courthouse Closures.” Mayor's Office to Protect Tenants. NYC.gov. Accessed November 16, 2020.

Hanbury, Mary. “Victoria's Secret Shuts down Its Online Store in an Unprecedented Move to Curb the Spread of Coronavirus.” Business Insider, March 19, 2020.

Hurtado, Patricia, and Natalie Wong. “Victoria’s Secret Sues NYC Landlord Over $938,000 in Rent.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, June 9, 2020.

Klasfeld, Adam. “NYC’s Tenant-Harassment Law for Covid-19 Comes Under Scrutiny.” Courthouse News Service. September 11, 2020. Accessed November 5, 2020.

Spivack, Caroline. “As New York Hurtles Toward an Eviction Crisis, These Are the Tenants Most at Risk.” Curbed NY. Vox Media, August 19, 2020.

Vernon, Daryll M. “Commercial Tenant Harassment.” New York City Bar Legal Referral Service. Last modified February 2018.

Alexandra Michael (ILR '23)

By Alexandra Michael (ILR '23)

My research for this article focused on the conflict between landlords and tenants in New York City. As a New York native, I found it interesting to follow along with the measures that the city has established to relieve COVID-related financial burdens for struggling New Yorkers. Specifically, the addendum to the tenant harassment law piqued my interest as it reflected the developments COVID wrought on the age-old conflict between landlords and tenants. In addition to my own research on this topic, being a part of the Conflict Resolution Club has provided me with the valuable opportunity to practice mock negotiations and learn about conflict resolution through direct experience.