AN 'ACT' THAT MEANS ACTION:
HOUSING BILL REQUIRES REPAIRS

Print More

No heat or hot water, a broken front door, a perpetually stalled elevator, an infestation of vermin. To deal with New York City landlords who don't accord such problems the attention they need, the city is giving itself new teeth to compel action – and the state may soon follow suit in bolstering local enforcement powers.

With the introduction of the Safe Housing Act before City Council last week, many housing advocates see the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) shoring up its commitment to code enforcement.

The Safe Housing Act – which mandates that 200 buildings with the worst violations be identified every year for intensive attention and inspections – is an expansion of the goals and spirit of 2005's Targeted Cyclical Enforcement Program, or T-CEP, an initiative which also began in the Council to provide a “comprehensive cellar to roof” inspection process of buildings identified by local community groups and area Council members as problematic.

Up to 400 housing units in 30 buildings could be inspected, with HPD rotating districts every two months. T-CEP was a departure from HPD’s normal protocol that was based on an individual tenant's complaint.

The new bill builds on T-CEP and has the support of diverse interests including the New York Immigration Coalition and the Urban Justice Center, as well as the Rent Stabilization Association, representing landlords.

HPD’s efforts are “better today than in 10 years,” said Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “There’s been more of a commitment from this administration than from the previous administration” regarding code enforcement, Baldwin said, “and for the first time, [HPD] has started being proactive.”

Brooklyn Councilmember Letitia James, a co-sponsor of the Act, said that with the new bill, “hundreds of buildings each year will be repaired by the city when landlords ignore city laws …Like with T-CEP, problem buildings will be addressed as a whole, not piecemeal. …Boilers and roofs will be replaced, rodents and insects will be exterminated, and other dangerous conditions will be abated in a timely way.”

HPD is charged with overseeing the safety and habitability of the city’s privately owned housing stock. A lack of basic necessities such as heat and hot water is designated a class C violation, which is most serious and is supposed to be corrected within 24 hours. Class B violations must be remedied within 20 days, and landlords have 90 days to correct the least serious violations, Class A.

The Safe Housing bill mandates HPD to intervene in situations where a given building has a history of emergency repairs while also carrying at least 27 current dangerous violations. If an owner doesn’t correct the violations within four months after notification, HPD will make the necessary repairs, charging the cost to the landlord. HPD will monitor the building for a year, according to Speaker Christine Quinn, who is also a co-sponsor.

The Bushwick community group Make The Road by Walking has been at the forefront of the campaign to put pressure on the city to improve housing conditions, because the Bushwick area “has had more housing code violations per unit” than any other district in New York City, according to co-director Andrew Friedman. Much of their work was the basis for what ultimately became the T-CEP pilot program.

Friedman agreed with Baldwin’s assessment that with some prodding, HPD has come a long way.

“We started two and a half years ago with the core thinking there had to be accountability for negligent landlords,” Friedman said. “There was consensus that the checkup after violations were issued, at the point where HPD steps in … historically [had] too little accountability on landlords and HPD.”

HPD spokesman Neill Coleman said his agency backs the new measure in part because, by investing in major building fixes rather than more superficial ones, it will save the city “money down the line because they …are not revisiting the same buildings over and over.”

And the Rent Stabilization Association supports the bill because “it helps target the really irresponsible owners … who give everyone else a bad name,” said government affairs director Frank Ricci.

Over the years, one of the foremost and most serious criticisms of HPD has been the fact that it does not have the ability to automatically enforce the violations it levies. That could change, leaders say.

The problem is due in part to the structure of HPD’s enforcement process. In the early 1970s, the city’s administrative code was altered to “combine all matters of enforcement in front of one court – housing court,” according to Harold Shultz, senior fellow at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, who has served as both deputy commissioner and general counsel at HPD. This model had worked “reasonably well in other places … but also prohibited [HPD] from creating a tribunal” of any kind, Shultz said.

But the intent essentially backfired. It necessitated that HPD go to court to collect fines it had imposed through its Housing Litigation Division, becoming the only city agency to do so. “There’s no point in sending inspectors [to follow up] if the violations aren’t certified,” he said. HPD “waits to take the violators to court, so the system stalls. …Code enforcement needs to be rethought.”

In fiscal 2006, the total number of housing violations issued by HPD was 582,375. There are currently 416 housing inspectors, with 119 specializing in lead paint inspections. Last year, there were 408 inspectors, and 102 dedicated to lead paint, though they are “fully trained” in all housing code matters, according to HPD’s Coleman. The lowest number in recent memory was in 1996 when there were 233 total inspectors, prior to the lead paint law.

In fact, the matter of issuing fines or the amount of the fines themselves – which most observers may believe to work as a deterrent to negligence, particularly as those fines have increased substantially over the last few years – is “a red herring,” said Friedman. “In practice it doesn’t create real accountability. … [The fines] are enforced by judges in Housing Court—invariably they choose to use that money to fix the building.”

In 2005, the city imposed a fine range for heat and hot water violations from $250 per day to $250-$500 per day, and the penalty structure was increased if violations occurred at the same building in the same year, according to HPD.

Preston Niblack, deputy director of the city’s Independent Budget Office, said “the cost of enforcement is greater than what [HPD] brings in from fines. They don’t collect a lot – it’s expensive and hard to do.”

What’s really necessary, say advocates, is some kind of adjudicative repair enforcement board – in the manner that applies to many other city agencies – to assist HPD in enforcing the city’s housing codes. However, such a body must be created by state-level legislation.

A bill to allow the city to create such an entity, sponsored by two Manhattan lawmakers – former Assemblyman Pete Grannis and State Senator Liz Krueger – has passed the state Assembly several times. It continually stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate and was not a priority of the Pataki Administration.

But Krueger, the ranking member of the senate’s standing committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, who has once again introduced the legislation this year, thinks there’s finally a greater chance of passage. She points to the new potentially sympathetic administration under Gov. Spitzer and is encouraged by what she called the “newly evolving Division of Housing and Community Renewal.”

-Jillian Jonas