“Although HPD and DOB are responding quickly to 311 complaints and sending out inspectors, there is a very troubling lag time and delay in terms of closure of these complaints,” Councilmember Pierina Sanchez said.

Adi Talwar

Broken mailboxes in the lobby of a building in The Bronx.

The new head of the Council’s housing committee is preparing to probe how city agencies respond to unsafe living conditions in apartments across the five boroughs.  

Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, says city housing officials should more quickly follow up on building violations after an initial inspection and hit derelict landlords with tougher fines. She plans to focus on code enforcement at her next committee hearing, she said during an interview on WBAI’s City Watch Sunday.

Penalties, she added, “should be a huge stick, a huge disincentive,” but for large landlords, “it becomes a slap on the wrist.”

Sanchez, who represents the 14th Council District in The Bronx, joined City Watch to discuss her priorities overseeing the Department of Buildings (DOB) and Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Her district covers the neighborhoods of Morris Heights, University Heights, Fordham and Kingsbridge, where just 4 percent of residents own their own homes, she said. Many tenants contend with deteriorating living conditions as remote landlords and private equity firms scoop up properties and extract profits.

“Although HPD and DOB are responding quickly to 311 complaints and sending out inspectors, there is a very troubling lag time and delay in terms of closure of these complaints,” she said. “It’s one thing to get an inspector out right away and that’s a good thing, [but] the ultimate goal is safety in our homes.”

On Tuesday, HPD announced it would crack down on the owners of 250 buildings added to the agency’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), which forces landlords to pay for repairs made by the city. The buildings account for more than 40,000 code violations, including 9,442 immediately hazardous, or Class-C, violations. Nearly half are located in The Bronx, including one Davidson Avenue complex investigated by City Limits and featured in exposes on the miserable conditions in former cluster-site homeless shelters and in scattered-site supportive housing units rented by nonprofit organizations.

The property owners owe the city a combined $3 million, HPD said.

But plenty of poor housing conditions elsewhere have avoided much scrutiny or penalty. Sanchez specifically discussed the fire that killed 17 tenants in the Twin Parks high-rise just outside her district, and likened it to a blaze that drove her family out of their home three decades earlier.

“Thirty years later, we are facing the exact same conditions of disrespect, inadequate services and neglect,” she said.

When it comes to city services and enforcement, Sanchez has plenty of institutional insight. She served as a housing advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio from 2018 to 2020. Several former colleagues, including former Deputy Mayor and HPD Commissioner Vicki Been, contributed to her campaign last year.

Meanwhile, Sanchez rejected real estate, landlord and for-profit developer contributions on the campaign trail, unlike her predecessor as housing committee chair.

On Feb. 25, she held her first committee hearing to highlight New York City’s rent stabilization rules and a proposed three-month extension that would give HPD and the U.S. Census Bureau time to complete the Housing and Vacancy Survey. Under state laws, rent-regulation can only continue if New York City declares a “housing emergency” based on a vacancy rate below 5 percent. In 2017, the last time the survey was conducted, the vacancy rate was 3.63 percent. The 2020 survey was delayed by the federal census and the COVID-crisis.

Rent-stabilization could theoretically run out April 1 if the city does not extend the timeframe for examining the vacancy data, declaring the housing emergency and opting in to rent regulation. It’s a concept that sounds “insane,” Sanchez said.

But tenants in roughly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments can rest easily. The Council will no doubt pass the extension, the survey will almost certainly turn up a vacancy rate below 5 percent in an overheated rental market and rent regulation will remain in place.

The Feb. 27 episode of City Watch also featured an interview with Queens Councilmember Julie Won, chair of the Committee on Contracts and one of the first two Korean-Americans elected to the Council.

Listen to the full episode here: