The Department of Housing Preservation and Development received more than 548,000 complaints in the fiscal year that ended in June and in the same period completed 578,000 inspections during which its inspectors issued 392,000 violations. Not bad for an agency that lost a quarter of its staff between 2008 and 2013.
But a recent report by an East Harlem advocacy group suggests that, in that neighborhood at least, HPD doesn’t have sufficient visibility. A survey of several hundred East Harlem pedestrians late last year by the group Movement for Justice in El Barrio revealed that “1 out of every 2 respondents had not called 311, even though all tenants surveyed had maintenance problems.” The report added: “The most common reason was that tenants didn’t know about HPD or 311 or its features.” It also found that two-thirds of respondents “did not feel confident that calling 311 improved their housing conditions” and that many of those who did call 311 had been told to submit their housing complaint online even though they don’t have access to a computer. And it noted that the HPD website isn’t especially well-designed for the purpose of receiving complaints.
The Movement for Justice survey pertains to the last months of the Bloomberg administration, and—as one de Blasio administration agency spokesperson told me the other day—“there’s a new sheriff in town”—but HPD did and does do outreach. Its website offers brochures for tenants, video training for landlords and a way to see how many open violations a particular building has. But HPD does a lot of things—building affordable housing, registering landlords, administering Section 8, conducting emergency repairs of distressed buildings and, yes, enforcing the housing code. So the nyc.gov/hpd website isn’t primarily geared to telling tenants how to file a complaint.
The Movement recommends that the city “publicize the 311 hotline and HPD’s role in addressing housing maintenance issues using public service advertisements across all five boroughs, including on subways, buses, bus shelters, inside subway stations, newspaper ads, TV commercials, commercials on taxi TVs, billboards, radio spots, in hospitals and other readily visible public locations.”
Indeed, imagine if tenants were reminded as vividly and frequently about 311 as often as smokers, soda drinkers or parents of four-year-olds have been informed about the risks of Marlboros and Mountain Dew or the availability of pre-K.
Maybe you and I can do our bit to spread the word. The poster below isn’t going to win any awards for design but it get the key points across. Download it, print it, put it on your door, copy it for your friends, et cetera. If you can help translate it into any language, email me and I’ll send the .doc.