Dinowitz bill targets landlords who gouge tenants

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A state lawmaker seeks to empower embattled tenants to take their landlords to task for alleged rent overcharges by giving them more time to take action — much more time.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz introduced a bill Feb. 8 to eliminate the statute of limitations on rent overcharges, which at the moment requires allegedly swindled tenants to file a complaint within four years from when they got shafted, according to Dinowitz’s office. The Assemblyman believes such overcharges are all too common, but often go uncorrected because tenants fail to discover them until it’s too late to act.

Yet they’re especially problematic in areas with higher tenant turnover where people tend to breathe a sigh of relief from simply securing a lease. They often aren’t aware they should check their rent histories, or are leery of provoking a landlord’s ire by standing up for their rights, the Assemblyman’s office said.

Dinowitz’s bill would allow for the state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency to investigate rent overcharge complaints in rent-regulated housing by reviewing all rent history beyond the current four-year limitation.

Rent-regulated tenants enjoy numerous rights, particularly with respect to rents, leases and services, according to HCR. But in order to exercise those rights, they need to file the appropriate application or complaint form with the agency. Apartment rents, meanwhile, are registered annually by building owners with HCR’s office of rent administration. Under law, rent information is confidential and can only be released to the apartment’s legal tenant, the building owner, or their authorized representative.

Rent guidelines boards — one in the city and one each in Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties — set maximum allowable rates for rent increases in stabilized apartments for one- and two-year lease renewals. These guideline rates are set once a year and are effective for leases beginning on or after Oct. 1. State law provides for a vacancy lease increase not to exceed 20 percent for new tenants moving into rent-stabilized apartments, although other factors can legally increase rents as well.

If a tenant files a rent overcharge complaint with HCR and the agency deems it valid, the tenant’s legal rent will be reduced, and the owner will be directed to refund the overcharged amount to the tenant.

Yet, while Dinowitz is pushing for eliminating the statute of limitations on rent overcharges, it’s important also to recognize why such limitations exist in the first place.

“In most cases, statutes of limitations are fair,” Dinowitz said, including in some criminal cases, although for certain types of crimes — including rape and murder — statutes of limitations have been eliminated.

But rent overcharges are quite distinct from certain criminal cases where the statutes continue to hold.

“We’re not talking about a situation where witnesses’ memories fade or witnesses die or disappear,” Dinowitz said. “We’re talking about simple records that may exist,” and “presumably” are on file with HCR.

“Many landlords,” as Dinowitz sees it, “basically lie” and submit false information to HCR — at the expense of their tenants.

“If you move into an apartment and have reason to believe that the rent is abnormally high because of a past violation by a landlord, you have the opportunity to prove your case only if it happened within four years” under current law, Dinowitz said.

But what if a new tenant had moved into an apartment more than four years ago, their landlord suddenly doubled that apartment’s rent, and the tenant signed the lease — without realizing it didn’t comply with established guidelines? Then that tenant couldn’t pursue a rent reduction case, Dinowitz said, because it all happened outside the statute of limitations.

“The bottom line is no landlord should be able to profit from their own impropriety simply because of the passage of time,” he said.

Such a bill could help struggling tenants like Elizabeth Thompson in what she described as a beleaguered Claflin Avenue building. Thompson claims her landlord has overcharged her rent for years.

“We have been fighting for certain things in that building for a long time,” Thompson said. Thompson believes she and her neighbors could benefit from eliminating the statute of limitations in that it could empower them to take legal action for overcharges she claims stretch back more than a decade. She’s also frustrated by what she described as major capital improvements — involving fixing the elevator and lighting in various parts of the building, among other things — she claims her landlord failed to implement promptly.

A representative for Thompson’s landlord, meanwhile — Moshe Piller of MP Management — said there are no major capital improvements currently underway in Thompson’s building at 2757 Claflin Ave., nor are there any pending overcharge cases.

Dinowitz anticipates the recently elected Zellnor Myrie — a Democratic senator representing Crown Heights, Park Slope, Sunset Park and other Brooklyn neighborhoods — will introduce the companion bill in the upper chamber

Given the state’s renter protection framework — commonly known as rent stabilization — expires in June, Dinowitz hopes a variety of tenant protection bills will be tackled well before then, including this one.

“Sometimes things will have to be settled through the courts,” Dinowitz said. “But I believe this will be very helpful to a significant number of tenants trying to prove that they’re being overcharged. The evidence that can be brought in shouldn’t be limited. If the records do exist, why shouldn’t that evidence be allowed?

“We’re talking about documentary evidence. That doesn’t fade with time like people’s memories do.”

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