In New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo finally brought down one of the city's most controversial landlords, Vantage Properties.
Who Is Vantage Properties?
Vantage Properties was founded in 2005. They have emerged as one of New York's leading investors in residential and retail properties. Today, their portfolio consists of hundreds of apartment and retail properties in some of the city's oldest and nicest neighborhoods.
Vantage Properties owns more than 9,500 units in Queens and Manhattan, many of which are rent-regulated. This means there are rules and limits for the amount their rent can increase each year.
The Attorney General accused Vantage of using illegal tactics such as fake legal notices and housing court eviction notices to force tenants out so they can charge higher rent.
For example, an elderly woman who has lived in her apartment for 20 years explained that Vantage stopped accepting her checks and threatened to evict her, even when she provided proof of residency. Vantage backed off only after elected officials and others got involved on her behalf.
In another example, even though he paid his rent, Vantage dragged a tenant into court for not paying rent just to harass him so he wanted to move out.
The lawsuit accused the company of falsely claiming that rent-controlled tenants hadn't paid their rent, or weren't legal residents at their address. If true, either of those claims would disqualify them from rent stabilization. Vantage has begun legal proceedings to evict many tenants, many of whom have occupied their homes for decades. Once these tenants are gone, Vantage would be free to charge new tenants higher rent.
Vantage spokespeople talked with city officials and reached a settlement in February after Cuomo's office announced it intended to sue the company for using "underhanded tactics" to push out rent-regulated tenants from their apartments.
In the settlement, Vantage must put aside $1 million - $750,000 for damages to tenants harmed by the company, and $250,000 to fund groups that advocate on the tenants behalf.
Also, Vantage must use a new system to handle tenant complaints and initiate legal proceedings. Vantage will have its contact and communications with tenants scrutinized by an auditor for the next three years.
According to a release from Cuomo's office about the settlement, Vantage must:
- Revise its policies and procedures so they use better investigatory measures that must be completed before Vantage gives its tenants an eviction notice
- Hire an independent monitor to review all tenant harassment complaints to ensure that all new claims are being addressed properly and tenants are compensated for any harm
- Provide translation services to tenants who don't speak English regarding questions on landlord-tenant issues
- Hire an independent auditor to oversee compliance with the agreement and anti-harassment tenant protection laws
- Submit reports to the Attorney General's Office for a period of three years demonstrating compliance with these rules
Ensuring Better Treatment for Tenants
In addition to the $1 million fund, Vantage has agreed to be subject to financial penalties if the auditor finds the agreement has been violated. For example, the auditor will randomly read letters issued to tenants regarding non-payment or that question their right of residency. If the letters are found to be baseless or don't conform to the new policies, there will be consequences.
Vantage agreed in the settlement to pay a tenant $1,000 or three times the amount of "real damages" such as lost wages or childcare paid while the tenant was in court, whichever is higher.
If a tenant files a complaint against the company, Vantage is required to forward the complaint to the auditor for a second, independent investigation. Tenants can also complain directly to the auditor.
Whether you're a landlord or a tenant, know what your rights and duties are, especially on eviction issues. State law, and often city ordinances control the process. It's not fast or easy for either party. Know what your lease and the law requires in your area, and find local resources to help. In the end, you want to enjoy your rental home, and your landlord wants to cash rent checks and run its rental business smoothly.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I live in a rent-controlled apartment. Does my landlord have a way of kicking me out?
- I would like to live in a rent-controlled apartment. How can I rent such an apartment?
- How long does eviction take in our area, and what if I didn't receive notice for the eviction case against me?