Quinn's Fake Tenant Credentials (phony as McKee's)

"the endorsement of Quinn as a tenant “advocate” is truly a case of putting lipstick on a pig.” Read Neil Fabricant's expose after the jump. New: updated and annotated with extensive analysis of Quinn's "Landlord Protection Act."


This is our annual "Why Tenants Lose" issue on the upcoming Democratic primary, this Tuesday, September 15th. We focus on the re-election campaign on Christine Quinn. While it's only one Council race among many, as City Council Speaker, Quinn is the second most powerful elected official in New York City, and has opened the door to many of Mike Bloomberg abuses on tenants. No longer a protector of tenants, Quinn is firmly the landlords' cheerleader.

Yet, she is seeking re-election claiming to be a tenant advocate. To swindle the electorate, she's enlisted well-known flim-flam man Michael McKee and the so-called Tenants' Political Action Committee (if you remember, McKee is the alleged tenant advocate who endorsed Peter Vallone for governor and who sat with Shelly Silver as they imposed Vacancy Decontrol in 1997). McKee's power base still is with NYS Tenants & Neighbors: two affiliated organizations that receive most of their funding from City Council and other politicians -- giving them an obvious incentive to make false positive claims about Quinn.(more after the jump)

We reproduce Neil Fabricant's article from Bloomberg Watch, and our own commentary in red. Even if you are not in the Third Council District (west side of Manhattan below 55th St.), we ask you to call anyone you might know in that area and ask then to vote for Quinn's challenger Yetta Kurland on Tuesday. Even if you're in the Far Rockaways, the outcome of this local election can impact you for the next four years.

Michael McKee Has Some Explaining to Do
"The endorsement of Quinn as a tenant "advocate" is truly a case of putting lipstick on a pig."
by Neil Fabricant
August 2009

Tenant "leader" Michael McKee urges tenants: "Help Re-elect Chris Quinn: A Strong Tenant Advocate in the City Council."

McKee claims that Quinn has "enhanced tenants' rights and the cause of preserving affordable housing." We have written elsewhere of our experience with McKee, a self-anointed tenant leader whose knowledge of housing laws and regulations appears to be unrivaled as are the decades he has spent leading tenants off a cliff with bad political judgments.

But the endorsement of Quinn as a tenant "advocate" is truly a case of putting lipstick on a pig. For those who have not watched Quinn make meaningless gestures on behalf of tenants while she takes the real estate money, and who take at face value the idea of Michael McKee as a tenant leader, there is I suppose a need to examine McKee's stated reasons and measure them against the damage she has done and will continue to do if an inattentive public allows her to continue "serving." We'll just focus on tenants -- never mind the slush fund and her betrayal of the public trust by overturning term limits for herself and her city council co-conspirators.

First, McKee cites the SAFE HOUSING ACT, which, he says, "established a systematic way to repair and preserve apartment buildings that are in deplorable condition."

The press conference generated by this 200 buildings-a-year program in a city of 8 million people was something to behold. The manufactured hoopla over its passage made it appear that Quinn had cast off the golden real estate handcuffs, and would now hurl her paymasters into the hell of what? Complying with the housing code.

Stripped of the photo-ops and housing agency acronyms, essentially the law says, "we're going to authorize the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to tell a few of the worst slumlords in the city what the law already says, namely, comply with it (or at least 80% of it)." Or else? "Or else we'll fix up the building and charge you for it." Granted it enables HPD to go in and instead of fixing the leak, change the pipes, but it's aimed at the lowest end of the real estate food chain -- the street dealers and what it ultimately demands of them is that they comply with the law -- this time we really mean it -- and they take an HPD-approved management training program! That is something like forcing Ted Bundy into an anger management program: slumlords know that tenants need water and heat. It isn't about management; it's about a zero-sum game in which landlords and politicians win and everyone else loses.

Editors note: NYC law already allows HPD to make critical repairs when landlords refuse to do so. The entire SAFE HOUSING ACT essentially restated the law as it already existed ... and was nothing more than a public relations event for Christine Quinn who needed to bolster what was left of any tenant credentials she might have had. Quinn's law was so weak, the Rent Stabilization Association -- the landlord trade organization -- supported it! All it really did was have some landlords go to class, allowed the city to officially target a much smaller number of egregious violators and Quinn further watered down the grace period for landlords to comply with violations from 30 days to four months.

Tom Robbins in the Village Voice, wrote: "... the bill which represents a watered-down version of earlier attempts to put stronger teeth into city housing code enforcement ... veteran organizers point out that the city has long held the power to undertake building-wide repairs in emergency cases but has been reluctant to do so because of high costs and potential legal battles."

McKee next cites the TENANT PROTECTION ACT, which gave tenants the right to sue their landlords for things like using force or making threats against a lawful occupant, repeated or prolonged interruptions of essential services, using frivolous court proceedings to disrupt a tenant's life or force an eviction, removing the possessions of a lawful tenant, removing doors or damaging locks to a unit, or any other acts designed to disturb a lawful occupant's residence.

The law reflects the reality of tenants' lives under the landlord-friendly Bloomberg-Quinn regime. At one extreme, the goons-at-the-door setting fires in the hallway or throwing acid-in-your-face is the stuff of criminal law. It doesn't happen often and fortunately when it does it still makes headlines. The gentler approach your-apartment-or-your-life-in-ruins that so many tenants have experienced should also bring down the full force of the law. Landlords need to be made fearful that if they step over the line -- these are our homes, after all -- they will be severely punished.

Quinn was quick to note, however, that this law "responsibly balanced protections for tenants with safeguards for landlords." As though the latter needed assurances that she wasn't going too far off the reservation. It's only civil penalties, and the maximum is $5,000. Since its enactment, there have been about 33 claims decided in the tenant's favor and 113 for the landlord.

Editor's Note: See below for detailed analysis of what is often called Quinn's Landlord Protection Act.

And finally, there was the SOURCE OF INCOME DISCRIMINATION ACT, in which New York City joined at least 17 others in making it illegal for owners to discriminate against tenants whose incomes are derived from government programs.

These important-sounding things may even have helped a few tenants resist the worst of the worst landlords, but they are purely cosmetic meant to cover Quinn's obeisance to the real estate lobby that finances her career. It works. So long as the core interests of her patrons aren't damaged, the real estate lobby doesn't mind. Quinn is worth more as a tenant advocate than she is as just another in-the-tank Democrat. And what are those core interests? That's easy -- unrestricted and unregulated rents, the right to build wherever, whenever, and whatever they please, tax-advantaged, non-recourse financing, and direct subsidies when they can get them.

Editors note: Non-recourse financing allows the city to issue bonds, usually tax-free, and often in combination with recent rezonings, to developers without the city having the obligation to pay back the bonds if they default. In other words, bond buyers would have "no recourse" to come after the city. It's easy and cheap financing for developers to build larger luxury towers, often displacing on-site tenants and certainly creating secondary displacement pressures in what were many affordable neighborhoods.

Not only would Quinn be less useful to the real estate lobby if she didn't pass an occasional bill or testify and march with tenants, but the endorsement of a tenant "leader" would be even harder to defend. Still, the vaunted accomplishments are thin gruel. So McKee also pointed out that Quinn has "called on the NYC Rent Guidelines Board to enact a rent freeze, and urged the State Legislature to repeal the Urstadt Law and to repeal vacancy decontrol."

"Calling on and urging" are the operative words. Whenever an elected official with leverage -- and the speaker has leverage -- "calls and urges" other politicians to fix a problem that s/he can do something about, you can be sure that the caller and urger is full of baloney. Trust me on that one. It's a time-honored legislative scam, a variant of the one-house bill. Politicians need Quinn to do things for them, give them the taxpayer's money especially, and so she has plenty of persuasive power outside the spotlight of passing some tenant-light legislation. She doesn't have to call and urge publicly.

I've already written about our experience with Quinn's co-sponsorship of Mitchell-Lama tenant legislation that we had drafted and that she, along with her predecessor, Gifford Miller, had sponsored. Had it passed it would have forced landlords who wanted to exit the program to negotiate in good faith with tenants or go to court to try to overturn a law that would have a presumption of validity. Going to court would have thrown into doubt the financing on which these deals depend. Good faith negotiations were a far safer and thus more likely route.

The Real Estate Board of New York claimed that the city council didn't have the authority to pass it. Others, including an NYU law professor who holds an endowed chair on the subject, testified that it was well within the council's authority. Although we had enough votes to override a mayoral veto, Miller and Quinn buried the bill, took the real estate money, and ran.

Since Quinn's ascension, neither that legislation, or any part of it, or any other action that gets in the way of the real estate lobby's core interests has ever seen the light of day.

Meanwhile, stabilized rents have skyrocketed; well over a hundred thousand affordable apartments have been lost to the private market, and, until the fiscal crises slowed things down, the predatory equity crowd was running amok. We are living in increasingly unaffordable city for anyone earning less than a six-figure income, and that hardly buys a family a middle-class life.

For years, Albany Democrats have been blaming it on the Senate Republicans, and the city council has been blaming it on Albany. Now that the Democrats control all three branches of government, they are casting about for other reasons not to do anything real for tenants while raising more money than ever from landlords and developers.

But that's just polibiz. Unlike McKee, we never believed the Democrats would do anything for tenants that seriously threatened the dominance of big real estate in New York politics -- until voters were educated to the skimming and scamming game. But with the Democrats controlling everything, who is there to blame? You guessed it -- Michael Bloomberg.

Michael Bloomberg is the man who appoints the Rent Guidelines Board, who finances the Republican Party, and who controls much more of what happens in New York than most people understand, something we will write about in the near future. Presumably, a Democratic mayor would at least slow things down a bit, appoint some tenant-oriented folks to HPD and RGB. Getting rid of Michael Bloomberg would do more to help tenants survive in New York City than any legislation that will emerge from the city council or Albany. In this case, the devil we don't know would be far better than the one we do. That much is certain. But lo and behold, we hardly hear a peep from Democratic politicians that he must be beaten.

And here is our question for McKee: How can someone who presumes to speak for tenants, urge tenants to vote for the one person who has done more to ensure Bloomberg's continued mayoralty than anyone else -- Christine Quinn? I won't speculate on McKee's motives, but many of us would like to hear the explanation.


Editor's Note: Quinn's Landlord Protection Act

Critics have pointed to many flaws in the bill, and question number of decisions favoring tenants. While Quinn cites 33 cases favoring tenants, a December 2008 Bronx newspaper reported:

"Tenant advocates who fought for the bill were unable to provide the name of a single landlord nailed for harassment in the Bronx" and "Quinn's press secretary, could not name any specific cases where Bronx tenants had won in court."  The same story has Quinn apologist Harvey Epstein admitting that only "a handful" of harassment cases had been filed. "We didn't expect the law to be used a lot..." said Epstein.

Of course this begs the question, what is the point if the Quinn Landlord Protection Act is not going to be used very often, or if the lack of frequent filings is touted to prove that it was needed in the first place? At her press conference unveiling the legislation, Quinn stated, "We're here today to mark this because although we know that most landlords in our city are treating their tenants well..." If that's the case, then why the legislation, and why is she running for re-election as a tenant advocate?

Even if accurate, Quinn's number isn't even a drop in the bucket in a city with 25,000 evictions every year and over 300,000 cases filed annually by landlords. A later citation had Quinn's office claiming an even lower number, that only 21 of the 540 harassment cases filed resulted in any civil penalties. That's less than 4% for tenants; 96% for landlords.

Tenant advocates who are not tied to the Quinn political machine often admit there are no verifiable results that the bill a) stopped the landlord from behaving badly or b) punished a landlord for doing so in a meaningful way, i.e., more than just a slap on the wrist.

"Since about 90% of tenants appear in Housing Court without the benefit of counsel, how in hell can tenants without a lawyer prove harassment? Remember, Housing Court tilts overwhelmingly in favor of landlords. There is no funding allocation for legal assistance for tenants and as we already know legal service providers are already stretched to the limits. I guess this is a long way of saying this bill is mostly show, a good public relations show for the politicians." Nellie Hester Bailey, Harlem Tenants Council

Others privately question the bill. "It's virtually worthless hype," said one attorney not wanting to be identified.

Here are just some of the many flaws with Quinn's LANDLORD PROTECTION ACT:

  • The fines are too small; $5,000 maximum, but more likely $1,000. It's the cost of doing business, like a parking-ticket. That presumes the court actually makes the finding of harassment.
  • Many Housing Court judges are simply pro-landlord and not likely to take effective action
  • Quinn inserted penalties for tenants on cases that end up getting dismissed. If a landlord has two harassment cases dismissed over a period of ten years, a tenant will then have to receive approval from a judge to file another harassment claim.
  • When cases get dismissed, landlords often use the finding as a weapon against the tenant, making it near impossible for tenants to prevail in later challenges, either in court or at DHCR or HPD. Landlords trot out an earlier dismissal -- often by a pro-landlord judge - and the agencies believe the landlord, either because they are predisposed to do so, or they then can get rid of upset tenants without having to get their hands dirty or do the work. "I often find that starting [DHCR] harassment cases results in a loss of momentum for the tenant and a psychological victory for the landlord" said one tenant attorney. The same would be expected in Housing Court harassment cases.
  • Tenants can be required to pay legal fees for landlords if a judge thinks the tenant's case is frivolous -- another Quinn protection for landlords. With mostly pro-landlord judges and with admittedly some tenants lacking clarity and articulation in their case presentations, tenants can't afford that kind of exposure. If they can't afford to hire lawyers at the outset, they can end up paying for the landlord's lawyers.
  • Harassment already can be a cause of action in Civil or Supreme Courts. Getting a finding has never been easy, but the new bill doesn't make it all that much easier.
  • Tenants could already sue for lack of heat, hot water or other bad physical conditions.
  • To really be effective, tenants need lawyers, and 90% of tenants (or more) can't afford legal help.
  • Requires HPD to place a violation, a task not easily done. And after years of harassing tenants, landlords can avoid court action by making repairs. Judges can simply tell the landlords to make repairs without making a finding of harassment.
  • Fines go to the city, not the tenant(s).
  • Landlords have an "affirmative defense" against tenant suits if they can show the conditions cited by tenants were "not intended to cause any lawful occupant to vacate a dwelling." This is a catch-all loophole. If you've ever been in housing court, the claim "we didn't know about the problem," or "the tenant didn't give us access" is stamped on landlords' foreheads.
  • And if all that isn't enough, exempted are owners of one- and two-family homes, owners of co-ops and condos who sublet.

In short, Christine Quinn has stacked the deck against the hopes of tenants for meaningful relief unless a tenant can afford an attorney and thousands of dollars for litigation that in the end, really doesn't accomplish much as all. Kudos to McKee and Quinn!

The landlords are also happy with Quinn:

"Obviously, people will look at this who own rental apartment buildings, and they won't be happy," the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, Steven Spinola, said. "But on a lot of other issues, she's [Quinn] been terrific and very strong."

"In my personal opinion," he said, "she's been very fair in a lot of these issues." Frank Ricci, Director of Government Affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association

This bill continues the illusion that the courts and politicians are actually doing something for tenants. Instead of helping tenants, the bill actually diverts attention from cleaning up housing court and DHCR. Housing Court is supposed to be something that is quick and easy. False expectations have been raised and tenants can be drawn into expensive litigation that probably won't be very effective.

To show how Quinn's LANDLORD PROTECTION ACT really can impact a tenants, we received this from a NYC tenant:

"Today was a hearing to determine if the case could be settled and if not to set a date for trial. My problem is that The HP people who [are] supposed to be on my side and will receive the money if my landlord is found guilty of harassment, didn't say or do anything to help me bring my case. As a matter of fact they sided with the landlord's attorneys ... and went along with the Judge who threatened to make me pay the court fees if the landlord was not found guilty."

"It was left up to me to interpret the law to the Judge and explain that if the court determines that a claim of harassment is so lacking in merit as to be frivolous the court may award attorney fees. The point I am trying to make is this: the City Council passed a law to prevent landlords from harassing legal tenants out of their apartments but didn't provide any legal help for the people who cant afford an attorney to bring a case to Housing Court. The Legal Aid department in the court will not represent me because I'm the petitioner or plaintiff. They will only represent me if I'm the Respondent or the defendant. The Judge threatened to make me pay legal fees if the court does not find that my landlord harassed me ... the court would not award me any abatement as 'just and proper further relief,' and I would have to start another case in a deferent court to receive any monetary relief."

The only people to really benefit will be the politicians who will try to take credit for this ... or to groups that get their funding from Quinn. This is more about repairing Quinn's damaged tenant credentials than anything else.