Council Eyes Systemic Remedy for Housing Violations

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Tenants and housing advocates have long grappled with the frustration of attempting to correct recurring violations in deteriorating buildings.

Whether tenants call 311 or bring “HP proceedings” in Housing Court, they are told that no matter how many times a problem has recurred, as long as the landlord removes the violation as written in the current inspection report, neither the Court nor the City has the power to compel the landlord to correct the underlying conditions that caused the violation. Slumlords are left free to paint over the mold and patch the ceiling under the leaky roof, while their tenants become demoralized by repeated trips to housing court that result only in the same shoddy patchwork repairs.

Forced into this procedural blind alley, organizing efforts can sputter and die out, and tenant associations can become dispirited and fall apart.

In 2007, HPD and the City Council began to address this problem when establishing the Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP). It was obvious that severely deteriorated AEP buildings, containing five or more hazardous violations per unit, could not be revitalized through patchwork alone. The Council therefore empowered HPD to require that owners not only correct the violations that are symptoms of systemic problems, but also repair the underlying conditions that cause or have caused the violations to exist. If owners do not comply, HPD may perform the systemic and structural repairs itself, placing a lien on the property for its cost. In the Bronx, for example, HPD was able to use AEP to perform structural repairs in five distressed buildings on Kelly Street before arranging for their transfer to a preservation purchaser.

This year, in her State of the City Address, Speaker Christine Quinn has proposed extending AEP’s systemic approach to all multifamily buildings in New York City.

Under the proposed legislation, HPD will be able to require owners “to fix a plumbing line if it is causing repeated violations for mold or plaster damage. They would also be able to require owners to replace a roof it is leading to repeated leaks and water damage. And they could require the owner to replace a boiler if there are repeated heat and hot water violations.”

Housing advocates will press the Council to make clear that Housing Court judges as well has HPD may compel the correction of systemic underlying conditions rather than accept patchwork solutions from neglectful owners. Allowing tenants to seek systemic repairs in Housing Court will greatly expand the reach of the statute beyond the properties HPD can address with its own limited resources, while alleviating the burden on the court system caused by repeated tenant actions brought to address recurring conditions.

Tenants may for the first time experience a code enforcement system that rewards their organizing efforts with lasting improvements in their buildings and their lives.

The pendency of orders for systemic repairs, and liens for systemic work performed by HPD, may also discourage predatory purchasers from acquiring distressed properties. However, housing advocates are also exploring legislation that would explicitly prevent slumlords from acquiring troubled properties which they have no intention of repairing.

Rather than place the burden on HPD to enforce a lien or a court order, the City could require purchasers to demonstrate a responsible management history and the financial capacity to restore their buildings to habitability in order to obtain a license to operate their residential rental business. Although New York City has not previously subjected residential housing to the same licensing scheme as bars, restaurants, or hot dog carts, numerous cities, including Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C., have long required landlords to obtain licenses before renting residential apartments. There is no reason why a slumlord with a track record of neglect and harassment should be free to purchase new buildings full of vulnerable human beings with no government oversight, while the proprietor of the hot dog stand across the street must apply for a City permit.

A landlord licensing law could help New York to break the cycle of real estate speculation, in which predatory purchasers acquire distressed properties at overleveraged prices, only to plunge their tenants once again into the nightmare of foreclosure and disinvestment.