Briefs

JTS Tenants Still Fighting Evictions
by Vajra Kilgour

Tenants threatened with eviction by the Jewish Theological Seminary are continuing their struggle.

While they await the results of the seminaryís appeal of Judge Joan Maddenís dismissal of the first 15 cases, the remaining eight are still in Housing Court. Most of these are in the discovery phase; the seminary has been so reluctant to provide relevant documents that the tenants are contemplating a return to court to get it to turn them over. In October, the seminary threatened to start eviction proceedings against a 77-year-old retiree and his family, knowing full well that the family had a right to a renewal lease; but some quick work by Catharine Grad, the tenantsí lawyer, stopped that.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 18, the tenants staged a protest at the Hotel Pierre, where the seminary held its annual fundraising dinner and honored Citibank head John Reed for his "concern for social justice and outstanding qualities of ethics and communal commitment."

During the 1970s and í80s, Citibank refused to make loans in African-American communities, a practice known as "red-lining," while lending hundreds of millions of dollars to apartheid South Africa. The Service Employees International Union has conducted a boycott of Citibank since it replaced SEIU-member janitors with nonunion minimum-wage workers. The bank is also under investigation in Mexico for laundering over $100 million for an alleged major drug trafficker, the brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas Gortari.

"Itís not surprising that JTS would honor someone like John Reed while they continue to try to make families and senior citizens homeless, but it is shocking," said Mike Fleshman, a human-rights activist who lives at 521 West 122nd St.

For the second year in a row, hotel officials tried to get the police to prevent the tenants from leafleting, but the tenants were able to distribute flyers to many of the guests attending the dinner.

State Court Strikes Down Overcharge Award
By Robert J. Anderson

In yet another limitation on tenantsí ability to collect damages for rent overcharges, the stateís highest court has ruled that landlords who buy buildings at foreclosure sales are not liable for the previous landlordís overcharges.

In Gaines v. New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, handed down in October, the Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court decision ordering the landlord to pay $13,000 to tenant Germaine Gaines. The court argued that forcing the new landlord to pay would hurt banksí ability to sell foreclosed buildings.

The case began when Gaines filed an overcharge complaint in 1991. Her landlord went bankrupt, and the building was acquired by the Home Savings Bank, which continued to overcharge her. In July 1992, the building was sold to 244 W. 10th Street Corp., which in turn sold it to ACB Realty in 1993.

The DHCR decided that Gaines had been overcharged by $13,000. However, it also ruled that ACB, the present landlord was not liable for this amount. As the original landlord was probably bankrupt, this meant she would not be able to recover any money.

In 1996, the Appellate Division reversed the DHCR ruling. It applied the rule that a successor landlord is responsible for the overcharges of its predecessor. The only "limited" exception is when the successor landlord buys the building at a foreclosure sale and there are no rent records available. The Appellate Division refused to allow the DHCR to extend this exception to one who buys the building from a purchaser at a foreclosure sale, as ACB Realty had bought it from 244 W. 10th Street Corp. The court stressed the fact that even if there were no rent records available, the overcharge proceeding was still pending when ACB bought the building, and it could have easily learned of this problem by simply contacting the DHCR. But the Court of Appeals reversed that, holding that ACB should have been covered by the exception which protects the original purchaser. The court stressed the fact that it did not wish to interfere with the way a state agency, in this case DHCR, interprets its own regulations, unless that interpretation is irrational or unreasonable. It said that to hold otherwise would cause an "adverse impact upon marketability at judicial sales." It also never discussed the Appellate Divisionís opinion that ACB could have easily learned about the overcharge proceeding.

As a result, Gaines is out $13,000 and has an unenforceable DHCR order, because the court felt it was more important to protect the power of Home Savings Bank to profit at the foreclosure sale.

Many tenants who have successfully litigated rent-overcharge cases before the DHCR soon learn that obtaining a favorable decision is only a small part of the battle. Enforcing the order and collecting the overcharge award can be even more frustrating and often impossible. This decision represents another in a recent trend of Court of Appeals decisions which seem to favor landlords, and will make it more difficult for tenants who have been overcharged to recover any money. Hopefully, its effect will be limited to cases that share its narrow set of facts.

AIDS--Housing Group Charges Giuliani Vendetta

State courts have ordered the Giuliani administration to hold off on its crackdown on the AIDS-housing group Housing Works.

State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman granted a temporary restraining order Nov. 20, ordering the city Human Resources Administration to pay rents necessary to prevent residents in the group's scattered-site housing program from being evicted, stop interfering with Housing Works' leases with landlords, and immediately restore food stamps to program residents who had had them cut off.

Late on Nov. 21, the Appellate Division denied an HRA appeal and upheld the temporary order. Housing Works has had a contract from the city to house people with HIV and AIDS since 1991. It now holds leases for 180 apartments. But last June, the Giuliani Administration let the contract lapse. The Housing Works lawsuit charges that the Giuliani Administration conspired to strip the group of apartment leases for its clients and deny them benefits.

Housing Works charges that letting the contract lapse was "a calculated and orchestrated attack" to punish the group for its outspoken criticism of Giuliani's AIDS policies. It Giuliani's AIDS policies. It also alleges that HRA promised to extend the contract and reimburse Housing Works for rents and other program costs as they came due, thus leaving the group with a pile of unpaid bills, and that city officials falsely informed clients that Housing Works was abandoning the program and their apartment leases. Housing Works is not the first nonprofit group to claim that the Giuliani Administration has a vendetta against its critics. Last summer, the city removed ACORN from two housing-development projects. ACORN has been a leading opponent of the Mayor's workfare policies.

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