Code Blues

Print More

Margarita Ortiz lives in a 7-by-10-foot, $375-a-month studio in a single-room occupancy brownstone in Washington Heights. Since she moved into 560 West 184th Street last May, she has gone for months without heat or hot water. Mice crawl across her stove. Her sink leaks nonstop, and the narrow communal hallway is strewn with garbage bags.

There’s no tenant organization in the building. The other residents are too scared, Ortiz says. Mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic, they’re frightened of being deported and worried about angering the building’s drug dealers with a united front. But without a tenant association to back her up, Ortiz hasn’t brought her landlord to court for the 250 building code violations against the SRO.

Her landlord’s attorney says that the owners are working to correct the violations, but Ortiz says the problems have gone unchanged for the nine months she’s lived there. “It’s not fair,” she says. “He’s supposed to fix all the problems that are inside the apartment.”

Ortiz is in Housing Court, though–as a defendant, facing eviction for not paying her rent for her dirty and dangerous apartment. It’s the only way she can see to get her landlord in front of a judge.

In past years, Ortiz could have turned to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s legal office. There, one of a squad of lawyers with the sole job of enforcing the housing code could have put the weight of New York City behind her fight to get her leaks fixed and her heat turned back on.

But today, that’s no option. Severe cutbacks have crippled the Housing Litigation Bureau (HLB). Just four years ago, the bureau had 46 attorneys; now, according to their union, only 18 are taking cases.

Though cutbacks are a familiar theme in the Giuliani era, the city’s housing department has suffered some of the harshest. And the stakes here are particularly high. The city’s entire mechanism for enforcing building laws runs through Housing Court. It’s up to these city lawyers to go after the city’s repeat scofflaws–the incorrigible slumlords who repeatedly run buildings into the ground and fleece the most vulnerable tenants. Quietly, the Giuliani administration has devastated this safety system.

The cutbacks among building inspectors–from 332 at the beginning of the decade to 224 today–are well documented. But few outside Housing Court have noticed the demise of the litigation bureau, which acts as the legal muscle behind the inspectors. It’s as if the police had no prosecutors to back them up.

“We’ve seen fewer and fewer cases litigated by [the Housing Litigation Bureau],” says Angelita Anderson of the nonprofit City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court. Judge Jerald Klein, who has served in Manhattan’s Housing Court since 1987, agrees. “There is absolutely an appreciable and noticeable decrease in staff, and there is a substantial reduction in the amount of activity the HLB does,” he says.

The numbers back them up. In 1990, 12,786 code-related cases were heard in Housing Court, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. In 1993, the mayor’s office broadened its calculations to include in that number every case opened. Even with that more generous measure, the number of code violation cases dropped to 9,925 by 1998–a 22 percent decline.

And that doesn’t tell the full story. Of those cases, more than 80 percent were filed by tenants. In practice, it’s now up to tenants to try to enforce the city’s laws–to bring offending landlords to court and try to ensure that judges’ orders get carried out. It’s no surprise that they don’t have much success. Many withhold rent instead, putting themselves on the verge of eviction.

In an extraordinary moment, even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has admitted that something is seriously wrong with the city’s housing code system, hinting that it might be up for reform. “The enforcement mechanisms are not taking place,” he said at a February press conference. “That’s the place where changes have to be made.”


Housing Court was created in 1973 with the idea that tenants living in a dangerously run-down building could go to court and leave with an order directing their landlord to make repairs. If the landlord was truly incompetent or unresponsive, the tenant could get an order appointing an independent administrator to run the building.

Under this plan, a section of the city’s housing department is there to back tenants up. HPD’s inspectors document the violations, ranging from cracked plaster to dangerously rotting foundations. These violations are checked in the department’s computer system against the landlord’s record, like a parking violation against a car’s license plate. But housing inspectors have no power to impose fines or order repairs.

Some landlords deal with the violation right away, since old ones can come back to haunt an owner trying to refinance a mortgage or increase rents in a rent-regulated building. For thousands of others, however, the inspector’s black mark is nothing but a blip in the HPD computer banks, easily ignored or dismissed. The 1996 Housing and Vacancy Survey–the most recent available–found that 94,110 rental units in the city had five or more problems, from broken plaster and peeling paint to backed-up toilets and water leakage.

So although Housing Court was designed to enforce the housing code, very few cases actually involve landlords being sued for infractions: just 5.7 percent, according to the Fund for Modern Courts. In reality, what most motivated tenants do is stop paying rent; eventually their landlords will bring them to court for an eviction, and there’s a chance the whole mess can get sorted out.

HPD Commissioner Richard Roberts has emphasized that the unit’s core mission is to help tenants with support and technical aid, to assist them in taking their landlords to court for violations. But most boroughs have only one HLB attorney to handle all tenant-initiated cases, and these lawyers are usually too busy to do much good. “[The attorney] is a decent person,” one neighborhood organizer says, “but his caseload is so overwhelming that we don’t even make him part of our calculations.”

Although they take up a lot of attorney time, lawyers say these enforcement cases aren’t very effective. Even winning isn’t much of a guarantee, since a landlord can easily ignore a judge’s order to make repairs, leaving a tenant with only one option: filing another case. Any money collected in fines goes to the city, not the tenant–and according to a 1996 city comptroller’s report, the housing department collected only 7 percent of all the fines assessed in court.

“[Enforcement cases] are a waste of time, totally useless,” says Ken Rosenfeld, a former Rent Guidelines Board lawyer who is now legal director of the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation.

What often ends up happening, lawyers say, is that the same landlords get hauled into court repeatedly, and problems persist. There are only two ways to break the cycle: though contempt of court findings or comprehensive cases. These are the heavy artillery in the housing law, the kind of cases that can send landlords to jail. “For landlords with a lot of money, [only] the threat of jail becomes the convincer,” explains Walter Strauss, a Brooklyn Housing Court judge since 1994.

But both procedures are virtually impossible burdens for tenants acting alone. Without a lawyer, a tenant doesn’t have much of a chance to file the legally complex paperwork necessary to hold a landlord in contempt for failing to follow a judge’s orders.

And although anyone can file a comprehensive case-sort of like a class-action suit against a landlord on behalf of all of the tenants–only the city has the authority to move ahead based on HPD records alone, without taking the time and trouble to organize tenant-plaintiffs.

It’s the one chance that the housing department has to proactively prosecute known slumlords. In a few cases, longtime litigation unit staffers can take personal credit for taking down a few of the most notorious landlords in the city. For example, Leonard Spodek, infamous in Brooklyn during the late 1980s as the Dracula Landlord, was forced out of the real estate business thanks to a combination of criminal prosecutions and Housing Court maneuvers led by the HLB.

But with departmental downsizing, attorneys say they don’t have time to start these time-consuming cases. According to one longtime litigator, a typical housing department attorney used to carry about 50 comprehensives per year. But during the last two years, the Housing Litigation Bureau has opened only about 200 comprehensive actions annually, working out to about 10 per lawyer each year. The result: more slumlords escaping justice.

“I see bad actors staying in the game a lot longer,” complains one senior HLB attorney, who, like nearly every lawyer interviewed for this article, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Attorneys also can’t take on cases to get an outside administrator appointed to run a bad building; they just don’t have enough time. In fact, lawyers lament, all they can do is try to keep up with the avalanche of heat and hot water complaints–even though they keep seeing the same flagrant lawbreakers again and again in court.


Winter is busy season for the Housing Litigation Bureau: Last year, it logged 143,000 heat and hot water complaints. So in September, anticipating another understaffed winter, the housing attorneys asked HPD management to address the shortage. “The bureau can’t do its job,” says Abbott Gorin, shop steward for litigation bureau attorneys. “We are extremely concerned that people will suffer.”

HPD brought on four part-time temp-agency attorneys at the end of January, and Commissioner Roberts promised that some of the slack would be taken up by clerical workers and paralegals. The union protested, but nothing yet has come of the grievance. Roberts recently pledged to hire three new lawyers next year. He also said that HPD would recognize the department’s legal structure “to increase attorny productivity.”

In the meantime, morale is low. There have been four new top lawyers for the bureau since 1994–the latest, Elizabeth Bolden, is an ex-Family Court lawyer with no Housing Court experience. Most of the rank-and-file lawyers are at the low end of the pay scale, earning approximately $38,000 a year, so there is an ongoing exodus leaving for other city agencies where the salaries and opportunities are better. “People who would have really liked to stay left in despair,” says one senior attorney. “In general, we have not been treated with much respect.”

It’s not just staffing; some attorneys feel like they aren’t given the leeway to do their jobs properly. Tenant advocates and outside lawyers report that the cases are not being prosecuted as aggressively since Giuliani took office. “I don’t think historically we were championed by the agency, but we were allowed to do our own thing,” remarks one embittered HLB staffer.

One lawyer, in the midst of complicated litigation to put a building into receivership, says that he has been asked to back off the case. Others say they must get permission from the bureau head before bringing contempt charges against a landlord, where in the past they relied on their own judgment. “Every time a landlord makes a phone call, you have to jump through hoops to respond to them,” charges one staffer.


For years, the tenants of 392 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn lived with leaky ceilings, broken buzzers, dangling electrical wiring and broken windows in their four-story Clinton Hill walk-up. At their wits’ end, they decided in 1997 to organize and seek legal help to force their landlord to fix the more than 700 violations against the building, according to Hamilton Steele, the leader of the tenants’ association. It didn’t occur to them to turn to the city for assistance. After all, they had been in and out of Housing Court for years without learning that HPD even had a staff of lawyers to enforce the housing code.

Local tenant activists at the Pratt Area Community Council referred 392 Clinton’s residents to Brooklyn Legal Services, which brought the landlord to court. “The reason why we got Pratt Area Community Council and Brooklyn Legal Services is because the city wasn’t doing anything,” Steele says. The case is still in Housing Court, but Pratt has taken over administering the building and is arranging for repairs.

It’s a roundabout way to handle the work that the city has abdicated. “We presume that we will get absolutely no help from the city,” says Benjamin Dulchin, director of organizing at the Fifth Avenue Committee, a tenant advocacy group in Brooklyn. This extra load is taxing some nonprofit legal groups that have taken up the slack. They’re hoping that Mayor Giuliani meant it when he said that changes needed to be made.