Cityview: Information Pleas

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It was a cold winter’s day in the Bronx, but the conversations in front of the Pelham Parkway apartment building where I stood were heated. “I get these terrible headaches. I can’t sleep!” “The lady down the hall had to take her baby to the ER!” “We have to do something!”

It had been months since the boiler pipe had ruptured. Fuel oil was mixing and rising with boiler steam, permeating every part of the building with noxious, nauseating fumes.

My group had been encouraging tenants to file complaints with city agencies, but with mixed success. The tenants were unsure that anything could be done to remedy the problem. I explained that filing complaints might get the authorities to sit up and take notice of the uncaring landlord. Perhaps even fine him. But I was talking to a cynical group. They’d seen it all. Heard it all.

“How much did he pay last time? What happened to the Fire Department violation? The Department of Buildings violation? The Health Department violation?” I was stumped. “I don’t know,” I replied. “But I’ll find out,” I promised.

It was easier said than done. In this information age, there exists no centralized source for details on violations a landlord has been slapped with. No one-stop deal for tenants where they can take their grievances and expect a quick response.

But there are solutions. In order to improve the lot of low-income tenants and the quality of its housing stock, the city should tap into the success and the accessibility of the internet, and, at the same, time borrow a page from strategies private companies use to help and retain customers.

First: Make all enforcement data on every apartment building available on the Internet so that any tenant can easily and quickly find out the history and status of violations on his or her building.

Second: The city could appoint a single agency, perhaps called the City Building Manager, that would facilitate all the relationships tenants in a building had with city agencies. That way, one phone call would suffice for assistance on the many issues concerning a building.

The private sector has such personnel. They are called Relationship Managers, and they manage all of a client’s business with a company. For example, a Relationship Manager at a computer service company might guide a client to the right division to help pick software, to another division to get it installed and yet elsewhere to receive technical assistance and upgrades. Such an office would have saved the tenants of the Pelham Parkway building days spent trying to fix their problems.

Instead, we spread ourselves thin. We contacted the Fire Department, the city Department of Buildings, the city Department of Environmental Protection, the city Department of Health, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development and state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Plus other places we thought could help, including politicians’ offices and the local neighborhood development corporation.

Our efforts were spirited but not fully effective, because we went off in different directions. Did we make the first call to the agency that could have best helped us? Probably not. We called the agency we had heard might handle this problem or one that someone’s cousin recommended. We had no expertise, only randomly acquired information. Our time would have been much more productive if we had had one person to call who would bring in the appropriate agencies to solve our problems.

In addition to the guidance and help, we needed information. Had other tenants filed complaints? Had violations been issued? Had fines been levied? How big were the fines? Big enough to get the landlord’s attention? Were the fines for ensuing violations larger? (We could not find a description of the Fire Department’s role in issuing building violations, for example.) All this vital information is unavailable to the average tenant. With the existing options–subscribing to the Building Information Service on your home computer, or using a fax-on-demand service available from the Department of Buildings–information and advice is slanted in favor of landlords, not tenants.

Picture it. You go on line to, say, www.nyctenants.gov. You enter your zip code and street address. Bingo! There, on your screen, would be all the official NYC information about your building: the owner, the block and lot number, the name of the super, the rental status, history of rent increases, tax arrears, all outstanding summonses and violations and the issuing agencies, fines levied, paid and outstanding, and more. And the information would be hyper-linked to the web pages of the appropriate agencies for more details. Your building’s home page would also contain a place to file a complaint with any of the relevant city agencies, and include the email addresses of those agencies’ complaint bureaus.

Of course, compiling this information would take enormous resources. Currently, even agencies that rely on their own data to get their jobs done must contend with serious shortcomings in their computer systems. That’s all the more reason to invest in standardized, integrated information systems that everyone–government, landlords and tenants alike–can count on. The end result for tenants: an effective combination of high tech and personal contact that would give tenants the ability to ensure they live in clean, healthy and comfortable housing.

Gelvin Stevenson is chairman of the board of Community Resource Exchange and a writer, economist, consultant, and activist.