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New York Governor Cuomo announced that his new Tenant Protection Unit is investigating a landlord who failed to renew lease agreements on a number of Spanish-speaking immigrant tenants.

The landlord, who owns and manages about 1,700 apartments in 35 buildings, is accused of harassment and intimidation. In a statement to press, Cuomo called him a bully.

Governor Cuomo said, “We created the Tenant Protection Unit for exactly this purpose: to stand up for renters who are being taken advantage of by bad landlords. This investigation sends a clear message to any owner who tries to profit by preying on those who do not speak English or push tenants out of their homes with threats.”

The charges that led to the investigation and subpoena include the alleged failure to provide renewal leases; fees on individuals rent statements that tenants say are false; and sending existing tenants information sheets asking them to provide documents proving income, as well as citizenship status.

In addition, the owners staff is alleged to have personally threatened tenants, telling them they could face eviction because of their immigration status or lack of proof of adequate income. Tenants also detailed being pressured to accept inadequate buyouts to leave their rent-regulated homes and waive their rights through an English-only settlement document — given to tenants who cannot read English.

In addition to requesting the relevant rental documents, the subpoena also requests information on the landlords business and investment practices based on their reported promises to investors of 15% profit returns through the purchase of rent-regulated buildings that they had described to investors as having been previously “mismanaged.”

State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee, weighed in on the controversy. “Landlord harassment is driving tenants from their homes, and has hastened the loss of critical affordable housing. Espaillat went on to call the landlords actions “reprehensible.”

Assemblyman Keith Wright, Chair of the Assembly Housing Committee, said, “According to these very serious charges, the security and stability of more than 1,700 individuals and families were seriously endangered. I commend the Governor and the TPU for acting expeditiously to protect these tenants and to hold a landlord accountable for his bad acts. Let this be a message to landlords: you will have to answer for abusive and illegal behavior to tenants.”

In preparing its enforcement action, the TPUs investigators worked with a local tenants rights group and met with several of the tenants who provided documentation of the alleged harassment.

Juan Haro from Movement for Justice in El Barrio said, “These tenants are taking courageous action against those who would try to exploit Latino immigrant communities and some of our states most vulnerable residents. We are very happy to work with the TPU on this case, and on other cases in the future that will bring justice to tenants.”

New York States rent laws, strengthened in 2011, are designed to protect nearly one-million residents of rent-regulated housing. Created by Governor Cuomo in 2012, the TPU has begun proactively enforcing the states rent laws — and says it has gotten results.

For instance, the TPU recently conducted a random audit of building owners who failed to register their properties in the last four years as required by law. The TPU has also audited owners requesting proof of work done as part of apartment improvements that significantly raised rents, and had been used in the past to move units out of regulation. For the first time ever, subpoenas were sent to owners who failed to comply with the TPUs requests for the required proof of these apartment improvements.

As a result, approximately 500 owners and 1,000 apartments have been audited and close to 2,000 buildings with 20,000 apartments have been re-registered and added back to the rent-stabilization rolls.

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