The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. A reduced budget has limited the agency's ability to inspect Section 8 buildings. The cuts that could come after federal sequestration would worsen the problem.

Photo by: Kjetil Ree

The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. A reduced budget has limited the agency’s ability to inspect Section 8 buildings. The cuts that could come after federal sequestration would worsen the problem.

Four Thanksgivings ago, Monique Murray, 40, ate dinner in the cold with her two sons because they had no heat or hot water in their Bronx apartment. That winter she and many other tenants had held their apartment windows in place with Styrofoam and duct-tape. But then, in the summer of 2009, she stepped out of her apartment to find the hallway windows getting fixed. She thinks she knows why.

“I never knew about an inspection, but I should’ve known when I saw the windows there that maybe they were getting an inspection done,” says Murray.

Thousands of New York City buildings like Murray’s at 941 Simpson St. in Hunts Point receive subsidized rent from the federal government through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s project-based Section 8 program. Section 8 pays the difference between what low-income people can afford and what the monthly rent is on an apartment.

With this investment of taxpayer money, the department commits to inspecting those buildings every year and scoring them, out of 100, on their condition.

In its most recent inspection on June 29, 2009, HUD gave 941 Simpson St. 91.5 out of 100, according to department records. In fact, several buildings in the Bronx—and possibly many more across the city, although it’s difficult to know how many—have been coming out with high inspection scores despite numerous deficiencies and code violations.

These inaccurate scores cause the buildings to get passed over for vital repairs, in some cases for several years. With winter setting in, many of these residents now face months of living in the cold, and to make matters worse, potential funding cuts in the new year could exacerbate the problem.

An informal survey of residents at two dozen Section 8 apartment buildings in the Bronx found that almost half reported problems either still existing or having existed at the time of the last HUD inspection. Some of the buildings had some tenants paying market value with a number of residents getting subsidies through the tenant-based Section 8 program.

Tenants at 430 E. 138th St. in Mott Haven have complained of no heat in some apartments, broken fire escapes, a rat infestation, and a front door that doesn’t lock. They say it’s been like that for years. The building received a 94.11 after its most recent inspection—on August 1, 2007, according to HUD records.

But in the database maintained by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), 430 East 138th Street had 84 open violations of the housing code this week, for problems like peeling paint, rodents, mold and missing carbon monoxide detectors. Murray’s building on Simpson Street had 70 open violations.

At 278 Brook Ave., also in Mott Haven, tenants described rats in the walls; the front door of the adjoining building couldn’t lock. Inspected together, the buildings received a 90.53 on September 13, 2007, according to the HUD records. (On the city HPD website, that property is linked to seven violations.)

Murray says the score for her building should have dropped below 90 before the inspectors even got in the elevator. The door wouldn’t lock, the intercom hadn’t worked for over a decade, and the sensor designed to stop the elevator door closing on people wasn’t working either.

“You would be pressing the button and that elevator would just slam your whole body if you didn’t jump on quick enough,” says Murray.

“I think I’m going to be shocked about that (score) for a while,” she adds.

Scores with consequences

Emily Goldstein, a senior coordinator for Tenant and Neighbors, a New York City housing advocacy group, says there are “a lot of question marks” and “a lot of criticisms” regarding how HUD’s inspection scores are tabulated.

“Those scores can be fairly inconsistent,” says Goldstein. “We have seen numerous examples going both ways.” (Click to see a table of the HUD scores.)

Inaccurately high inspection scores can have a number of consequences. HUD has over 1,000 insured and subsidized developments in the New York metro area, according to local HUD spokesman Adam Glantz, and he says the department tries to inspect every building every year.

“There is a caveat to that depending on the (inspection) score,” he says.

Buildings with scores between 60 and 79 will get inspected again the next year, Glantz explained. Buildings with scores 80 and up won’t get inspected for two years, and buildings with scores above 90 won’t get inspected for three years.

There are buildings in the Bronx that haven’t been inspected since 2007, according to HUD records, and the issues that plagued Murray’s building over three years ago have only just begun to be fixed after a recent change in management.

“If you’re giving those scores and they aren’t accurate then the tenants aren’t getting repairs,” says Joyce Campbell-Culler, a Hunts Point housing activist since the 1970s. “It just produces poor living conditions in the long run.”

Do landlords sway the score?

HUD inspections are “highly questionable,” especially when it comes to the inspection of individual apartments, Campbell-Culler says.

“One of the ways they do it that I never really understood is they have 10 apartments on that floor and they go into Apartment 7,” says Campbell-Culler, giving a hypothetical.

“Those are always the one that are in good shape. How do you do that? How are the ones they always choose the ones in the best shape?” she adds. “How do you get that lucky seven each time?”

Campbell-Culler says she speculated that landlords or general managers accompanying the inspection might be steering the inspectors towards the good rooms. Murray concurred.

“They knew not to bring (them) to me, because I would tell the truth,” says Murray.

HUD inspectors pick apartments at random, Glantz says.

“We randomly select, and I think the landlord will reach out to the tenants” for permission to visit their apartments.

He adds that inspectors will look at a percentage of units depending on the size of the development, as well as all common areas, boilers, roofs, wiring, and the plumbing system.

Costs and cuts limit inspections

But HUD’s capacity to inspect apartments is limited by a budget that’s tight, and getting tighter, according to Goldstein. Discretionary funding for housing programs has been cut by $2.5 billion, or six percent, since 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning fiscal policy think tank. Funding for Section 8 programs has increased in that period because HUD had to renew contracts for subsidies signed with landlords decades ago, but those increases don’t affect the agency’s ability to inspect.

“That’s a substantial cut,” says Goldstein. “You can basically say all the fat there has already been trimmed.”

Goldstein adds that the department could be further debilitated by mandatory across-the-board cuts if the U.S. government fails to avoid the “fiscal cliff” in January. HUD programs, including project-based Section 8, could see an 8.2 percent loss if Congress can’t reach a deal that spares them, according to estimates from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Goldstein says budget cuts could impact the department’s inspections, especially when it comes to inspectors themselves.

“Buildings (would) wait way longer than HUD may want for getting an inspector out,” says Goldstein, adding that inspectors “have already been cut back beyond what would be optimal, I think.”

Glantz says he hadn’t heard anything about past or future shortfalls. Marta Metelko, a spokesperson for the Office of the Inspector General, an independent oversight office within HUD, says she couldn’t speculate on possible cuts.

“I believe we’re all waiting to see what happens with this fiscal year,” says Metelko. “I don’t think any office is immune.”

Calls for a tenant role

Glantz notes that tenants can always file a complaint with the department, should landlords or inspectors miss or neglect a violation.

“There are instances when tenants may complain to the landlord and we may not know about it,” he says.

He adds that inspections are also problematic given that they only show a fixed point in time.

“Two months after an inspection, if there’s something and a tenant doesn’t complain to us, it may be difficult for us to know about it.”

After years of campaigning around the inspection scores issue, Tenants and Neighbours have launched a campaign to raise awareness about the impending cuts to HUD funding.

Campbell-Culler thinks the inspection process needs to be reformed. To start, she suggests that tenants should show inspectors around the building, instead of landlords and general managers.

“HUD has their inspections,” she said. “What’s policing HUD?”