Kia Franklin

Landlord-Tenant “Corporate Slumlording” Suit May Go Class Action

I had lunch with some lawschool buddies this weekend. Nerds as we are, our conversation eventually shifted to a discussion of landlord-tenant law, and the recently-filed case against Pinnacle Group. Nine angry tenants in Harlem are suing the company for engaging in "corporate slumlording," listing off numerous abuses that make their case very provacative. The New York Post has an article discussing the possible expansion of this lawsuit into a class action:

"September 16, 2007 -- A civil-racketeering lawsuit against one of the city's most notorious slumlords may be upgraded to a class action, adding thousands of angry tenants to the fight against the company, lawyers said yesterday.

The original suit against Pinnacle Group and its chief officer, Joel Wiener, was filed in July by a group of Harlem residents. It accused the giant of "corporate slumlording" by turning out more than 5,000 eviction notices in two years and breaking rent-stabilization laws." (Read Full Article)

During our discussion, one friend posed the question of why these tenants have put up with such conditions for so long... Why did they move in in the first place? Why did they not move out as soon as this started happening? Essentially, couldn't the tenants have avoided this? Another friend noted that many people simply cannot find both adequate and affordable housing. For many people--people who work full time to support their families, mind you--there is simply no good choice. They must choose between homelessness and a bad, sometimes terrible, housing situation.

Tenants say Pinnacle has engaged in harassing activities like: collecting illegal rents, failing to make repairs and fix housing code violations, wrongful eviction practices including not accepting rent and then claiming non-payment of rent, and having building superintendents make inadequate repairs or false promises to make repairs. Without access to the civil justice system, through which tenants can hold landlords responsible for the above listed activities, the bleak reality is that many people would have to just live with it.

Regulatory agencies can only do so much. In the Pinnacle case, for example:

"[T]he City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) website currently lists multiple apartments under Pinnacle management with a slew of long uncorrected violations, including multiple "impairing" rent and hazardous violations such as inadequate fire exits, lead-based paint, and lack of heat and hot water. Many of these hazardous "Class C" violations have not been addressed for years, despite the fact that the Housing Maintenance Code requires owners to correct Class C violations within 24 hours." (Emphasis added)

The initial plaintiffs' good fortune in finding (and diligence in searching for) a pro bono attorney, along with the possibility of a class action, create a ray of hope for Pinnacle Group tenants. Unfortunately, many tenants cannot obtain pro bono counsel or their case lacks the potential of expanding to a class action, and thus provides less incentive for attorneys to take them on under contingency arrangements. These people are just out of luck under the current system.

Perhaps, then, this issue will once again provide occasion to consider the need for a civil right to counsel in important civil matters, such as those pertaining to access to adequate housing.

Andrew Scherer, Executive Director of Legal Services for New York City, has already discussed this in the context of eviction proceedings. In his article, Why People Who Face Losing Their Homes in Legal Proceedings Must Have a Right to Counsel, he notes that most families and individuals facing eviction in New York City cannot afford a lawyer. He continues: "Like one's liberty and custody of one's children, having a home is one of the most important and fundamental human needs that may be in jeopardy in legal proceedings."

We'll keep track of this case as it develops.

Kia Franklin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 12:45 PM, Sep 17, 2007 in Housing
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thank you for blogging about this issue (i am a pinnacle tenant so i have a personal interest int his case). it's amazing that people who went to law school could be so clueless about the realities of the lives of most americans (i think it says a lot about the massive yet disavowed class divide in this country). most renters, and especially in new york, choose their housing by location and rent. precious few have the luxury of picking and choosing based on the landlord.

Posted by: El Gringo Rumbero | September 19, 2007 10:18 AM

Absolutely. Please keep visiting and sharing your insights. Thanks for your comments.

Posted by: Kia | September 20, 2007 5:39 PM

Thank you for posting about this, I am also a Pinnacle tenant. In regards to the question posed about why don't we move: yes, obviously many of us cannot move. I know I don't have the funds to pick up and move. Many of the people, like me, moved into these buildings under different ownership and were bought out by Pinnacle. But besides the money issue - I would ask you why you would suggest that we should have moved. A lease is a contract that says I will pay you $X and you will keep the building in good health. When a contract is broken, you fight to keep the other person accountable. If I just move away, then someone else comes in and goes through the same problems. We have a social and moral obligation to get this company to fulfill their promises.

Posted by: Kelly | September 27, 2007 11:09 AM

Wow--thank you for that insight! Rarely do we frame this kind of issue in terms of a societal obligation to stop the wrongdoer from abusing the system and potentially hurting others in the future. Especially in this individualistic society where it's assumed that everyone is out for his or her own. This is a powerful take on the issue, literally empowering to tennants. Thanks again.

Posted by: Kia | September 27, 2007 3:22 PM