440 residents of an East Harlem apartment have sued international real estate conglomerate Dawnay Day for neglecting building repairs, charging for appliances that were never purchased, and issuing fines reaching $8,000 for improperly using those imaginary appliances. New York’s State’s housing laws apparently don’t protect tenants from bogus fines, so the group instead relied on consumer laws to file their suit.
The Movement for Justice decided to incorporate consumer laws to the fight over housing displacement. A first step was to notify its tenant members of the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which guarantees a consumer’s right to challenge or receive written verification of debt. Members who had received false charges then wrote to Dawnay Day, notifying it of the law and demanding verification of their charges.
This strategy worked, but only temporarily.
For several months, the tenants’ debts decreased or, in some cases, disappeared. But then false charges appeared again. Calentre, for instance, had fines — for repairs that were never done, a refrigerator that he hadn’t bought, interest and late fees — in excess of $8,000 when he protested to Dawnay Day. He then watched the charges fall to the low hundreds, but a few months later, they climbed back up to nearly $4,000, where they hover currently and without explanation.
“Now, the bills don’t even say what the charges are for,” Calentre said. “They just show the amount that is owed in addition to the rent.”
Sifting through New York State consumer law, the group’s lawyers found a statute in the New York General Business Law forbidding false and deceptive business practices. Because issuing false charges to customers falls under this law’s provision, the Movement for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of 22 tenants, like Calentre, who had received allegedly false charges from Dawnay Day. The suit demanded that the charges be eliminated and that Dawnay Day refrain from such activity in the future.
The suit remains pending, but thanks to the subprime meltdown, Dawnay Day may be forced to sell the neglected property to a new slumlord. Dawnay Day had previously offered to settle the case, but their proposal “did not include an all-encompassing commitment to stop issuing the false charges.”
How to Fight an International Landlord [Gotham Gazette]