HPD: TENANTS GET CODE SHOULDER

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Officials at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) are looking for ways to bring the city’s code enforcement policy in line with the Giuliani adminstration’s long-time goal of making the system more landlord-friendly.

“We are taking a hard look at enforcement policies. We want the housing code to be consistent with our anti-abandonment efforts,” Stephen Tinnermon, acting deputy commissioner for housing preservation at HPD, recently told a group gathered to discuss ways to help small landlords in low-income communities provide better services to their tenants. “The focus is shifting away from the conventional eGo after the landlord’ stance. If we do that we will force landlords over the edge, leaving us with additional [abandoned] properties to manage.”

Tinnermon said that Commissioner Richard Roberts recently appointed an agency task force to review the code. HPD staffers will research how housing codes are enforced in other cities and look for ways to make the code–which, among other things, requires landlords to provide basic services like heat and hot water–easier on local property owners, he said. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “We don’t want people freezing to death, but we want to help small landlords.”

Under the current system, tenants call in complaints to HPD and an inspector comes out to confirm the report. HPD then notifies the landlord about any violations. Owners are expected to correct the violations; those that don’t can be brought to Housing Court by HPD attorneys. There, a judge can hit the landlords with significant fines and tenant rent abatements. Typically, however, HPD lawyers will negotiate with landlords, reducing their punishment recommendation in exchange for assurances that the landlords will make repairs.

Tenant advocates have long criticized the system, saying it lacks effective enforcement, relying on landlords to fix their own problems. Landlord groups, countering that the housing code is too Byzantine to follow, say that inspectors should offer warnings for first-time violators and use that process to educate landlords about the law.

“I would hope that the community will have input,” noted Anne Pasmanick, executive director of the Community Training and Resource Center.

Tinnermon responded that the task force, charged with making recommendations in the next four months, will initially be composed only of HPD staff. “We would first bring it to the commissioner,” he said. “In the second phase, we’ll bring it to the community.”