Bronx Councilmember Pierina Sanchez introduced a bill Thursday that would more than double reinspection fees for landlords who accrue multiple hazard violations within a 12-month period. The bill is co-sponsored by nine other councilmembers whose districts account for nearly half of the roughly 200,000 heat and hot water complaints in New York City since 2020.

Adi Talwar

Experts say regularly recording temperatures can help tenants show proof of insufficient heat.

The chair of the City Council’s housing committee wants the city to crack down on property owners whose buildings rack up persistent heat and hot water outages.

Bronx Councilmember Pierina Sanchez introduced a bill Thursday that would more than double reinspection fees for landlords who accrue multiple hazard violations within a 12-month period. The current inspection fee is $200, but Sanchez’s bill would increase the cost to $500 after the second inspection. It would also give the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) the power to raise the price to $1,000 during heat season, from October to May, when building owners are required to maintain indoor temperatures above a particular threshold.

Sanchez said she was inspired to introduce the legislation by the fatal fire at the Twin Parks North West high rise in January, which was sparked by a faulty space heater, which apartment dwellers often rely on when they’re having issues with inadequate heat.

“Thinking about what happened at Twin Parks, and how many tenants don’t have heat or hot water and call and call and call again and the issue doesn’t get resolved, $200 for a repeat inspection felt like a slap on the wrist,” she told City Limits Thursday. “I don’t want to slap people on the wrists. I want people to really be deterred from being slumlords.”

The bill is co-sponsored by nine other councilmembers whose districts account for nearly half of the roughly 200,000 heat and hot water complaints in New York City since 2020.

Last month, City Limits analyzed three years of 311 data related to heat and water complaints and found that they disproportionately affect renters in lower-income communities of color, like Northern Manhattan, Central Brooklyn and the South and West Bronx. Bronx Community Board 5, which overlaps with a large portion of Sanchez’s district, was home to more than 28,000 such complaints during the period City Limits’ examined—the highest of any community district in the borough and second-highest in the city overall.

Heat complaints are often difficult to enforce, as it can be hard for tenants to prove when a property owner is failing to maintain the temperatures required by city law. In some cases, advocates say, property owners will withhold heat to save money on utility costs, or in more egregious instances, to harass rent-stabilized tenants into moving out.

Above: City Limits compiled and hot water complaint data for each community board, from the start and end of each heat season since 2019 and through Feb. 15 of this year.

The legislation comes on the heels of another Council bill that would increase the minimum temperature required for buildings during heat season, which lasts from Oct. 1 to May 31, from 68 degrees to 70 degrees during the day and from 62 to 66 degrees at night. 

Landlords who decline to pay up could face more challenges down the road. Under Sanchez’s bill, unpaid fees could result in liens on the property, possibly leading to foreclosure. They can also be used as part of comprehensive litigation brought by the city, she said. 

Sanchez represents the 14th Council District, which covers the neighborhoods of Morris Heights, University Heights, Fordham and Kingsbridge and where more than 90 percent of residents are renters. She told City Limits in February that she wants to use her power as chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings to ensure HPD steps up code enforcement and collects on fines and penalties. In recent years, the agency has failed to collect the majority of the fines and fees imposed on property owners, according to a 2016 report by the city comptroller’s office. Some landlords treat the penalties as the cost of doing business—or ignore them altogether, she said.

“Sometimes there are actually small landlords who are financially constrained and need help, but then there is another category of folks who are just like, ‘I don’t care’ [about fines and fees],” she said. “So let’s strengthen the fines and strengthen the fees.’”

She said she anticipates resistance to the legislation from landlord groups, but said the bill is only intended to punish property owners who chronically flout safety rules and dismiss modest penalties.

“If you’re a good actor and have a tenant who calls in a heat or hot water complaint and you correct it, it’s not about you,” she said. “This is about folks who are perennially not addressing these problems.”

Still, said Aaron Weber of the property management firm Weber Realty, the fee hike represents “bad precedent” for landlords who are facing rising costs. 

Weber said he understands the need to protect tenants from negligent owners but worries that landlords who are trying to do the right thing will be penalized if tenants complain during ongoing repairs. The Council “is moving in the direction of levying all these penalties and it could spiral out of control,” he said.

Heating costs have increased, and inflation has only made repairs more expensive, landlord groups say. Weber said he is hopeful that Mayor Eric Adams’ administration will be more favorable to landlords and prevent the city from establishing new ways to penalize property owners.

“I think Mayor Adams has changed the current a little bit, when he got elected the sentiment shifted after property owners had been neglected during the de Blasio Administration,” he added. 

Sanchez’s bill may have the support of the Adams administration, however.

HPD spokesperson William Fowler said the agency is reviewing the legislation but backs mechanisms to strengthen landlord accountability and tenant safety.

“Property owners must provide adequate heat and hot water to all tenants,” Fowler said. “We appreciate Chair Sanchez’s goal of ensuring that property owners take this responsibility seriously or face penalties, especially those who repeatedly fail to provide adequate services.”

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