Watch out slumlords: The city’s getting ready to pay you a visit. Under a new program announced by housing commissioner Shaun Donovan last week, the city will send teams of inspectors out to the city’s worst buildings for roof-to-cellar inspections. Owners will have three months maximum to make repairs—or face the city in court.
The announcement comes after months of meetings between the City Council, local housing groups, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). While the memorandum of understanding governing the plan has not yet been signed, City Limits got a sneak preview from Councilmember Gale Brewer, whose 2004 bill, known as Intro 31, was the impetus for the changes. “I have nothing but accolades for the city,” said Brewer. “I just hope to God we can get these buildings improved.”
HPD inspectors will target three council districts every two months, choosing 30 buildings, half based on information from their own records and half with input from community housing groups and council members. While the program works with laws already on the books, it adds a new mechanism for follow-up, explained David Greenberg, policy director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, an umbrella organization that helped shape the plan. “The problem is not simply inspections or litigation,” he said. “It’s timing the two together so the code is truly enforced.”
After working with a community group to gain full access to the building, HPD will follow up with the landlord after one month, two months and three months to see if violations have been repaired. If 80 percent of violations are not corrected within three months, the case will be referred to housing court. “If there’s a landlord who isn’t cooperating, we’re going to look at the remainder of their portfolio, find out what other buildings they own,” said Luiz Aragon, HPD’s deputy commissioner for preservation services. “We’re sending the message that we mean business.”
Yet that message may not be loud enough to keep the city’s worst landlords in check, argues Manuel Castro, housing and environmental organizer with Make the Road by Walking, a Bushwick nonprofit. While he supports the new initiative, he hopes it doesn’t undercut Intro 486, the Healthy Homes Act, new legislation that would require automatic HPD reinspection for all serious Class C violations and greatly stiffen penalties for landlords who don’t comply. The bill has 27 co-sponsors on the City Council but hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing. “The city is going to the community and targeting buildings that have problems, “ he said. “That is good. But it’s just a small number of buildings. Now let’s move to the next step.”
But 486 might be a tough sell now that a compromise has been hashed out. “This [new program] is our preferred approach,” said HPD spokesperson Carol Abrams.
Ana Ingersoll, tenant association president at 600 West 161st Street in Washington Heights, would rather see the new fines written into law. Her building, home to roughly 60 families, has 1,023 code violations, according to HPD’s online database. The apartments are spacious and elegant, but many are in obvious disrepair: Faucets leak, paint is peeling, bathrooms are moldy, and some stoves have been without gas for months. The landlord, Prana Growth Fund, could not be reached by press time.
“We’re not asking to live in Trump Towers,” said Ingersoll. “We just want the building to be brought up to code.”