Better buy a coat. The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s brand new computer system for tracking heat and hot water complaints has gone on the fritz. With the computers malfunctioning, say tenant lawyers, it will be very difficult for tenants to make a case in Housing Court or protect themselves against evictions when they withhold rent. Plus, the agency’s own lawyers have been hobbled in some of their most important work–going after landlords who leave their renters in the cold.
The computer system has two big problems. Because of an HPD database upgrade, the computer terminals that judges and attorneys use to look up violation reports in court haven’t communicated with HPD’s central computers since November 22. On-site liaisons can look up the records, if the judge requests it, but tenant attorneys will have to subpoena the records, which takes time and resources. And for tenants without lawyers it’s simply not an option.
“We’re very concerned,” said April Newbauer, Attorney in charge at the Queens civil division of Legal Aid. Without records, “the tenants will have no way of proving previous violations, or secure the right to a rent abatement. It’s a huge problem.” Harlem Legal Aid’s Kenny Schaeffer pointed out that without proof, it’s hard to get violations corrected.
Ernesto Belzaguy, first deputy chief clerk of Manhattan’s civil court, said the new system would not be fully functional until some time in February. Until then, judges won’t be able to access records from court. “Instead of having it at the bench, [judges] will have to call the [HPD] inspectors’ office,” he said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s a little less easy.”
“HPD has addressed transitional issues with the Court to the Court’s satisfaction,” the agency responded in a statement to City Limits. “The reports are available to the judges on the same day in virtually all cases; there may be isolated cases that take until the next day.”
But there’s a more serious problem: internal database malfunctions have led HPD to call some of its attorneys off new heat-related cases. Each winter, shivering tenants call in roughly 150,000 complaints about a lack of heat or hot water. Tenants can go to court to get the problems fixed, or the agency’s Housing Litigation Bureau can initiate more powerful legal cases against landlords. In winter, the housing agency’s attorneys can file between 30 to 50 of these cases each week; HPD Commissioner Richard Roberts recently testified there were about 1,800 last year.
But an internal agency memo reveals that the computer glitches will pull some of the department’s Brooklyn attorneys off the job for part of January. “We have far less cases ready to be put on the court calendar than we should,” reads the memo. Because records are unavailable, several attorneys have had some January court dates cancelled, preventing them from filing new department-initiated heat and hot water cases on some of the coldest days of the year.
“It proves that [HPD] Commissioner Roberts’ promises before the City Council a few weeks ago were empty when he promised that the Housing Litigation Bureau would be more aggressive in enforcing the housing maintenance code,” said Schaeffer.