- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - State and city officials have launched a joint task force to crack down on New York City landlords who harass tenants to force them into vacating rent-regulated apartments.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor Bill de Blasio joined others Thursday in announcing the creation of the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force. They said the joint effort was a response to a rise in tenant complaints, perhaps triggered by the city’s soaring real estate market.

“This is the landlord-tenant equivalent of climate change,” Schneiderman said in a Brooklyn news conference. “If you treat your tenants like criminals, we will not hesitate to make you one.”

Tenant harassment complaints in Housing Court have nearly doubled since 2011, officials said. The task force will target landlords and management companies suspected of using disruptive and dangerous renovation and construction projects to force out tenants.

Once vacated, an owner can automatically increase rents by 20 percent or eventually convert rent-regulated buildings into luxury condominiums.

Traditionally, city departments have used their enforcement powers to ensure compliance with building codes if owners neglect their buildings, while the state handles harassment and rent regulation. The new task force will coordinate those prosecutions, some of which could lead to criminal charges, officials said.

De Blasio, who has made the creation and preservation of affordable housing the centerpiece of his year’s agenda, said the new task force will add muscle to the fight against tenant harassment and the city’s efforts to protect rent-stabilized apartments.

The landlords “believe ‘if we made life unacceptable they would leave,’” de Blasio said. “This is what the task force is going to (target). Our message today is that you will get caught. You will wish you had not broken the law.”

The task force will build off the efforts of the state’s Tenant Protection Unit, which has recaptured 37,000 unlawfully deregulated apartments, returning them to rent regulation status.

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