HPD Gives Tenants Code Shoulder

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Officials at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) are looking for ways to bring the city’s code enforcement policy in line with the Giuliani administration’s long-time goal of making the system more landlord-friendly.

“We are taking a hard look at enforcement policies. We want the housing code to be consistent with our anti-abandonment efforts,” Stephen Tinnermon, HPD’s acting deputy commissioner for housing preservation, recently told a group gathered to discuss ways to help small landlords provide better services to low-income tenants. “The focus is shifting away from the conventional ‘Go after the landlord’ stance. If we do that, we will force landlords over the edge, leaving us with additional [abandoned] properties to manage.”

Tinnermon said Commissioner Richard Roberts recently appointed an agency task force–composed of HPD staff–to review the code and make recommendations within four months. The task force is to research other cities’ code enforcement policies and look for ways to make New York’s code easier for local property owners to deal with, he said. Among other things, the code requires landlords to provide basic services like heat and hot water. “It’s a balancing act,” he said. “We don’t want people freezing to death, but we want to help small landlords.”

Under the current system, which has long been criticized by tenant advocates for relying on landlords to fix their own problems, tenants call in complaints to HPD. Inspectors confirm the reports and notify the landlord of any violations. Owners who don’t correct the violations can then be brought to Housing Court by HPD attorneys, where a judge can hit them with significant fines. Typically, however, HPD lawyers negotiate with landlords, reducing their recommended punishment in exchange for assurances that repairs will be made.

Landlord groups contend the housing code is too Byzantine to follow and say first-time violators should be given warnings and educated about the law.

The task force will first bring its recommendations to the commissioner, Tinnermon said. “In the second phase, we’ll bring it to the community.”

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