Burned Out

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It’s not like they hadn’t tried.

For months, the tenants of 27 Brevoort Place had pestered their landlord to fix the endless problems in their little Bed-Stuy townhouse. And the city’s housing inspectors tried to help, at least at first. They visited the building often, dutifully documenting everything wrong with it–the peeling lead paint, the leaks, the broken stairs, and, twice last October, the fact that even though there was no fire escape, the sprinkler system didn’t work.

It didn’t make much difference. The landlord simply ignored the stream of violation notices from the housing department. After a few more visits, city inspectors pretty much gave up on the building, even though, as far as they could tell, none of the dangerous problems had been fixed.

Six months later, the sprinklers still didn’t work, and the building still didn’t have fire escapes. But 13-year-old Ashley Sims didn’t know any of that when she came over to spend the night with her friend on July 22. When somebody set the second-floor landing on fire at three that morning, the building turned into an inferno. Other tenants leaped from the windows, but Ashley Sims couldn’t get out. She died in the fire that night.

“Our dreams are gone,” says her mother, Sharon Sims. “Not a minute goes by that I don’t think of her.” She says other kids in the neighborhood keep stopping her, asking her where Ashley is, and when she’ll be back. “Nobody should have to go through what we are going through. It’s a nightmare.”

When a government system set up to protect children fails, it’s often front-page news, complete with lawsuits, political hand-wringing and Al Sharpton. But when it comes to the city’s decrepit housing code enforcement system, it doesn’t work that way. After a quick flurry of mea culpas from the mayor and indignant rumblings from the City Council speaker, what happened at 27 Brevoort Place has been more or less forgotten. Apparently, nobody is particularly surprised that the system to enforce the city’s housing code doesn’t work.

Lamenting the failures of code enforcement has become a ritual in New York City. Every few years, someone dies in a horrible and preventable building disaster. Housing experts bemoan the slipshod system. Reporters document the miserable housing conditions that many New Yorkers must endure. Everyone shakes their heads and vows to do better next time. And nothing much changes.

The mess can’t all be blamed on the Republicans and their landlord friends. The city’s housing code enforcement system was devastated 10 years ago, when a Democratic governor cut the budget and a Democratic mayor stood by and watched. And today, the people who usually fight for tenants–activists and the progressive wing of the City Council–have resigned themselves to living with a system that is shoddy and unreliable.

The result has been a deadly deadlock. City Council officials say that they don’t even get pressured by advocates to put money into code enforcement. Advocates, in turn, say they’re fed up with fighting the unresponsive city government. Frustrated and jaded, most everyone who might do something about this slow-motion catastrophe has essentially given up. “People are just exhausted by the whole thing,” says one City Council insider.

“Every year, there’s an effort,” says Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors, a housing advocacy group. “But it’s sort of like a déjà vu pro forma thing. After a certain number of years, you’re sort of dragging yourself out of the mud to beat your head against the wall. People feel beaten down. It’s very hard to do this work and not be demoralized.”

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Once upon a time, say tenant advocates, housing inspection and code enforcement worked pretty well. When tenants called the housing department back in the 1980s, an inspector would come out promptly, and immediately address serious problems, anything from a major rat infestation to a heatless winter day. Follow-up was better, too: Inspectors would make sure that important repairs got made, and if the landlords wouldn’t cooperate the emergency repair bureau of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development would step in to do the job. Particularly negligent landlords had to contend with the city’s aggressive Housing Litigation Bureau, once respected for prosecuting–and even throwing in jail–some of the city’s worst slumlords.

In 1990, Governor Mario Cuomo cut $8 million in state aid for city housing inspection. The city never made up the difference, and by 1995 there were fewer than 200 inspectors left, less than half the number there had been four years before. The system never recovered either its funding or its efficiency. In fact, critics say, it effectively stopped being a system at all.

In March 1995, code enforcement became big news after three people were killed in the collapse of a run-down Harlem tenement. HPD inspectors had visited the property many times, even noticing a menacing crack in the foundation, but they either didn’t understand the symptom or failed to refer it to the people who could fix the problem.

A meticulous audit later that year from State Senator Franz Leichter and city Comptroller Alan Hevesi dissected exactly what was wrong with the city’s code enforcement. They found the system was better at tabulating violation statistics than actually fixing broken-down buildings. Staff cuts were only part of the problem; the real issue was that enforcement process lacked teeth. Inspectors might come out and document the same problem three or four times, but there was no way to pressure a landlord to do repairs. On top of that, because the rules allow landlords to “self-certify” repairs as long as they are done promptly, lying was rampant: The audit found that 40 percent of landlords hadn’t made the repairs they said they did. While lying about repairs theoretically carries a penalty up to $1,000 and a jail sentence, dragging landlords into court was impossible for the overburdened agency. Without enough lawyers to chase after lying or negligent landlords, the inspectors’ best efforts were being squandered. In short, they said, the system simply made no sense.

Meanwhile, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office launched a criminal investigation of the Harlem landlords. The New York Times called for a “broader re-examination of city housing policies.” And then-Harlem City Councilwoman C. Virginia Fields demanded a shakeup of the code enforcement system, along with an early warning system that would monitor troubled buildings in order to prevent disasters. It seemed like things were going to get better.

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This winter, the devil came to Bushwick. In the late 1970s, this shabby Brooklyn neighborhood of rowhouses and tenements was plagued by fires from landlord arson and vandalism. In 1977 alone, more than a thousand Bushwick apartment buildings were torched.

The new year rang in like those bad old days. On the bitterly cold night of February 22, it seemed like Bushwick was ablaze again. In just over an hour, five separate fires were set within a couple of blocks. It was apparently the work of the same arsonist or arsonists, since every time the m.o. was the same: the firebug found a building with an unlocked front door, crept into its hallway in the middle of the night, and set something–a mattress, a baby stroller, garbage–on fire. His was a particularly nasty trick, since choking, panicked tenants naturally head right for the stairwell–straight to the heart of the flames.

By the end of February, fires had ravaged 15 Bushwick buildings. Neighbors were terrified, and the Fire Department’s chief marshal urged Bushwick residents to clear junk out of their hallways and keep their front doors locked.

But for some tenants, a front door that locked would be a luxury feature. The tenants at 72 Bleecker had been struggling with their landlord for at least six months to fix the lock on their front door. They had also complained to HPD, and faced the same routine the tenants at Brevoort Place endured–inspectors would come, they would see, they would fine, and they would leave. “We kept telling [the landlord] we need a lock, and she’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,”’ says tenant Rosanne Castegna. “HPD knew about it, and they’d send an inspector, who’d give a fine. They’d put the [violation notice] in the little vestibule.” And that, Castegna says, was that.

Then one night in June, the hallway arsonist dropped by 72 Bleecker Street. Finding the door unlocked, he sneaked inside and torched the stairwell. Castegna’s sister, Marie Ramos, describes what she woke up to that night: “Black, all the smoke coming through the living room door. Black, all the smoke coming through the kitchen door. When I opened my living room door, I saw big flames.”

Ramos’ kids and her other sister, who is mentally disabled, climbed out the kitchen window, where firefighters helped them down off the fire escape. But when it was Ramos’ turn, she fell off the ladder, hurting her leg. Her upstairs neighbor wound up in the hospital. Many residents had lived almost their entire lives in this building. Most lost all they owned.

That night, fire investigators noticed a familiar face there in the crowd, a man they had noticed at some of the other fires. “My sister says she knew the guy,” says Ramos. “She says he used to say hello to her on the street. But he must have been crazy. She said he was standing in front of the building watching it burn. She heard that he said he was the devil, and that he did it.”.

That suspect has been charged for one of the Bushwick fires, and investigators think he set the others, too, although they have no proof. But until the investigators catch and jail the right man, Bushwick tenants can only sit tight and hope–because they’ve already found out that they can’t count on HPD to make sure their buildings are safe.

“The tenants were trying to do their best to make sure that nobody was in the hallways,” Castegna says. “We figured if we called the hotline, we would get results right away, especially when there’s children and handicapped people in the building. It doesn’t work that way.”

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After the fire at 27 Brevoort Place, HPD changed the way it handles buildings with no fire escapes or sprinklers. Now, inspectors will call the Fire Department right away, and won’t leave the building until fire investigators show up. The department also won’t give up on these cases until the work is finished, and says it will be much more aggressive about getting court warrants to force repairs.

But the deeper problem with code enforcement was never at HPD anyway. It’s at City Hall. Fields’ early warning system stalled out within a few years when the Giuliani administration decided it would be too expensive. The reforms Hevesi and Leichter recommended have never been implemented. District attorneys never bothered to prosecute any of the landlords that Hevesi’s auditors caught lying about repairs.

With a few notable exceptions–including City Council stalwart Stanley Michels–most politicians aren’t interested in making code enforcement work again. A delegation of housing groups tried to meet with Brownsville and Bed-Stuy City Councilmember Tracy Boyland to talk with her about problems with code enforcement last spring. Although Boyland’s district has some of the worst rental housing in the city, she brushed the groups off, delegating the meeting to one of her staffers who knew next to nothing about housing. She also didn’t come to a recent City Council oversight hearing called in the wake of the fire that killed Ashley Sims. (Boyland was not available for comment, and her staff did not return calls on the matter).

The one man who could easily make code enforcement a priority, City Council Deputy Majority Leader Archie Spigner, is also not interested in reforming the system. “I don’t know that it’s got to be changed,” he told City Limits at the hearing. After thinking for a moment, he added: “Perhaps we could press upon them that it’s irresponsible not to make these repairs.”

With dozens of other equally urgent housing issues fighting for lawmakers’ attention, this one usually slips to the bottom of the heap. “In the battle over all the things the Council and the mayor battle over, [code enforcement] gets knocked out or traded off,” sighs Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant advocacy group. “It is frustrating, and it’s a lot of work.” This year in the City Council budget process, it came down to an either-or decision between cash for lawyers to do eviction prevention, or more money for code enforcement. As usual, code enforcement lost out.

Given the Council’s lack of interest, it would take a energetic lobbying effort from tenant advocates to get hikes for code enforcement funding–an effort that’s not forthcoming. The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a trade association for housing nonprofits, has recently mounted a campaign to push for better code enforcement, but City Council insiders say that the group is virtually alone in the effort. Most other housing groups “talk about rent, and that’s it,” says one. Another concurs: “Quite frankly, there hasn’t been a good advocacy effort to get this on the agenda. There’s no grassroots, from-the-bottom push.”

The shakiness of HPD’s code enforcement records also makes it difficult for tenant advocates to use tragedies as opportunities to demand serious change. The database shows about a dozen out of the 40 buildings that suffered serious fires so far this year had outstanding fire safety violations for missing smoke detectors, defective outlets or blocked fire exits. Unfortunately, HPD’s records are so unreliable that it is impossible to determine whether these violations contributed to the conflagrations, or had been cleared up before the fire. Although the database lists some three million violations–about two for every rental unit in New York City–many of them are years or even decades old, and landlords insist the damning figure is mostly the result of bad bookkeeping.

Sharon Sims and her sisters aren’t waiting for the Council and the mayor to sort it out. Instead, they’ve gone the more direct route: they hired a lawyer. “I hope that HPD starts doing their job, and I hope everybody knows what my sister is going through because they didn’t have time to do the job,” says Carolyn Lee, Ashley Sims’ aunt. “I would like to ask them: how would you feel if it was your child?”

Additional reporting by Michael Haggerty.