By J. Moss, D. Rosenblum and M. Perlman
This is the final chapter in a five-part story. Click here to see the rest of the series.
The Bronx building where Jashawn Parker died in an electrical fire had hundreds of housing code violations in the summer of 2002. The most serious were even ordered fixed by a Housing Court judge 14 months prior to the tragedy, but he was ignored.
That was just one bad building in a web of dozens that were connected to one real estate operator. There are thousands more owned by others that threaten tenants throughout the five boroughs. University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP), a Bronx nonprofit, keeps a close eye on the health of the housing stock citywide through its online Building Indicator Project. Last year, factoring in housing code violations and financial warning signals like liens, it reported that in 2010 there were 3,395 properties in distress citywide. In the Bronx, 1 in 10 multifamily dwellings were on the critical list.
The recent bursting of the private-equity bubble added to the problem, leaving whole portfolios of buildings coming apart at the seams. A single, 10-building portfolio controlled by the Milbank group became notorious for racking up 4,000 violations before the city, with the help of housing groups, stepped in to broker a sale of those Bronx properties to a more responsible owner. That episode spurred the city’s housing agency to create the Proactive Preservation Initiative, which in 2011 reviewed 500 troubled properties as candidates for ongoing monitoring, roof-to-cellar inspections and litigation.
That effort and others like the Alternative Enforcement Program, which scrutinizes and applies the agency’s inspection and enforcement tools to 200 problem buildings highlighted by local officials and community groups, are powerful new arrows in HPD’s quiver.
But is there a way to pressure problem-prone owners to maintain their buildings in the first place? And when some of the worst buildings inevitably fall through the cracks and threaten tenants’ health and safety, what would make the appointment of outside administrators more likely?
Part of the problem—as indicated below—is that tenants and other advocates have had a hard time agreeing on winnable solutions. As a result, nothing changes. But City Limits explored three policy ideas being considered by advocates and elected officials to address this systemic problem.
How it could work: A city agency like HPD could be given vetting power to determine whether an owner has a good record before granting a permit or license to purchase a property. Owners buying distressed properties would also be obligated to rectify issues before getting a permit. A similar licensing program is already the law in Philadelphia and several other cities nationwide where unlicensed owners are legally barred from collecting rent.
Making the case: The measure would prevent landlords of troubled buildings from acquiring new properties. “For you to buy a hot-dog cart in New York City, you have to get a license,” says Dina Levy, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “But you can buy a thousand-unit apartment building with no proof of qualifications and then proceed to ruin the building.” The change in policy wouldn’t need approval from the state legislature, where most pro-tenant measures go to die.
Voicing concerns: Harold Shultz, a senior fellow at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and a former HPD official, believes it’s unlikely that New York City agencies would have the capability to regulate such a large operation. “Even if no one tried to cheat on this and they just simply didn’t get licenses, what do you do then?” Shultz says. “Is the city going to take over a couple thousand buildings and run them? Are tenants of those buildings going to be told they don’t have to pay rent? I understand the threat, but [if] nobody pays rent, no violations get fixed.”
Status: Several housing advocates are mounting a push for legislation to implement this policy, but it’s unclear if the idea has City Council support.
How it could work: Rather than being handled in Housing Court, housing violations would be under the jurisdiction of either a new administrative tribunal or an existing one, like the Environmental Control Board, where landlords would be required to pay fines and ordered to fix violations. A tribunal system would remove the process from an already inundated Housing Court, which also sorts out arguments over rent and a range of other landlord-tenant disputes, and allow for the individual assessment of each violation issued by HPD. Such a system, say proponents, would hold landlords accountable for every violation issued to their buildings and would require them to take action to remedy the problems.
Making the case: When a housing violation is issued, “it’s put on the shelf until the building becomes a problem,” says Shultz, who says he’s been pushing the tribunal idea for 30 years. “A penalty is assessed at the time of the violation for everything else.” For example, New Yorkers who blast their car stereos or mix recyclables with regular trash can be hit with a summons, and the city stays on top of violators until they pay up. Jim Buckley, executive director of UNHP, also supports the concept. “Housing violations affect quality of life,” he says, “and yet they’re less enforceable than parking tickets.”
Voicing concerns: Advocates of the general concept say the Environmental Control Board, which currently administers summonses under the city’s zoning and housing code, doesn’t now have the capacity to deploy inspectors to make sure repairs are made.
“The ECB has been good at issuing point-of-fine violations,” which only require a payment from the responsible party, says Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “But they have been less good with actionable violations.” In other words, to make buildings safe and livable, landlords need to make repairs, not just pay a fine, and that could require more inspectors.
Status: There is no legislation currently being considered on this approach, but advocates believe the city could just implement the plan administratively.
Putting teeth in the 7A process
How it could work: State law would be amended to increase the odds that Housing Court judges will appoint outside administrators to temporarily take over neglected buildings if landlords did not complete ordered repairs within 60 days.
Making the case: New York statutes currently say only that landlords must act with “due diligence” when violations are recorded, according to Bronx assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who has backed a bolstered 7A process since Jashawn Parker’s death. “People shouldn’t forget that maybe that child might not have been dead if the landlord made repairs that he was supposed to make,” he says. A tweak to housing law could counter what appears to be a judicial bias toward protecting property rights even in the face of the most serious building hazards.
Voicing concerns: Even under a strengthened 7A law, tenants’ and landlords’ fates would still depend on which judge got their case. Giving judges a broader set of tools is one thing; getting them to use them is another. Some judges might still be reluctant to aggressively pursue landlords.
Status: Dinowitz introduced legislation making this change in 2002, and it has been passed by the Assembly, but the fact that most advocates we spoke to hadn’t heard of the bill suggests there’s little chance it will survive the Senate and become law anytime soon.
Daniel Rosenblum and Matthew Perlman contributed reporting and writing to this article.