Vito Mustaciuolo has been inspecting New York City apartments since the Reagan administration and he remembers days when he’d see apartments that were frozen. Like literally. “You would actually see icicles in people’s apartments,” says Mustaciuolo, a 33-year veteran of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and now its deputy commissioner for Enforcement and Neighborhood Services.
Such horrors aren’t extinct. But in an interview last week, Mustaciuolo insisted they were far less common now than as recently as a decade ago. “I certainly believe—and the numbers, our indicators, support this—that overall conditions in New York City, in the residential rental market … have improved dramatically in the last several years,” Mustaciuolo said. “When you look back at five, 10, 15 years, when you go back even further, the differences are more dramatic.”
The HPD official’s comments come after advocacy group Movement for Justice in El Barrio released a report criticizing the agency for lax enforcement of housing laws. A survey conducted by the Movement in late 2013 in East Harlem found large majorities of those surveyed either didn’t know about HPD or believed HPD had failed to investigate many complaints or get landlords to address them. The Movement has called for more aggressive enforcement and more oversight of the agency.
HPD says the survey was faulty. In fiscal year 2014, which ended in June, HPD received 548,000 complaints, conducted 675,000 inspections and issued 392,000 violations. According to the Mayor’s Management Report, since fiscal year 2006, the number of complaints is down 12 percent and the number of violations is lower by 32 percent.
It’s this last number that HPD points to as evidence that, over time, their approach has made a difference.
Mustaciuolo attributes the improvement to partnerships with elected officials, new enforcement tools from the City Council, higher visibility for HPD enforcement officers since the 2002 decision to put them in uniform and specific programs like the Proactive Preservation Initiative, which aims to identify problem buildings in time to head off the worst problems by alerting regulators and lenders. Recently, the agency conducted an initiative in Brownsville where HPD flooded the neighborhood with inspectors, who checked out nearly 400 buildings. The results aren’t in yet, but other neighborhoods may see a similar approach soon.
Movement for Justice in El Barrio cited problems with the 311 system, which directs tenants with complaints to file them online—an impractical request for those who don’t have computers. Language barriers also come up, the movement says. The most recent MMR indicates that the average time to close emergency complaints—about heat or hot water, for example—grew by more than a day from fiscal 2013 to 2014. The time to wrap up non-emergency complaints lengthened by more than three days, on average.
While contending that his agency has done a good job informing the public, Mustaciuolo acknowledges that the system is “not perfect.”
But the general idea that housing conditions have improved is echoed by others. “Of course, there are landlords who aren’t competent, and there are a growing number of landlords who use harassment, including lack of repairs, to push out low-rent paying tenants so they can bring in higher paying tenants to take advantage of that strong housing market,” says Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “But overall, we don’t see rampant slumlordism. And, over the past number of years, HPD has gotten smart about focusing their repair programs with efforts such as the Alternative Enforcement Program, so when they are really bad buildings, HPD is smarter about getting repairs actually done.”
Mustaciuolo says HPD and the Council have been discussing—and may soon reveal—new legislation “giving us additional enforcement tools to punish the bad landlords and at the same time not hurt the good landlords.”
Recently, some landlords have warned that rising costs for water and taxes combined with the tight cap on stabilized rents approved by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in June mean they will soon be unable to afford upkeep of their buildings. Those complaints come as debate looms in Albany over the fate and shape of rent stabilization rules affecting 2.3 million city tenants.
Mustaciulo doubted that threat, arguing that landlords are generally in a comfortable economic spot. “We have seen in recent years an economy that has turned around. Owners have more access to refinancing and we have seen owners reinvest in their properties,” he said. “We work with owners who are telling us they’re getting the best interest rate they’ve gotten in years.”