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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

As City Fixes Buildings, Reimbursements Lag

During the worst of times at his Brooklyn apartment, in the winter after the hot water was shut off and the ceiling caved in and the floor buckled because of incessant leaks, Julio Yanez resorted to desperate measures to bathe his year-old twin sons.

Tucking one boy under each arm, he hightailed it every morning across the street in Bushwick to a kindly neighbor who let the family use her tub. Eventually, the city replaced the roof, patched ceilings and repaired walls, and billed the landlord $434,000.

Mr. Yanez could not be happier with the fixes. But the city has yet to be paid back.

This was not the outcome officials said they hoped for when they started a new housing enforcement program three years ago, which allowed the city to make repairs at severely distressed buildings and then, it was hoped, force landlords to pay for the work. But of the $17 million in repair work the city has undertaken, only $4.5 million has been paid back.

Meanwhile, the program is set to grow in ambition: newly proposed legislation would widen the list of repairs the city would do to include removing asthma triggers like vermin infestations and increasing the number of units allowed in the program to 3,500 from 1,000.

“Asthma is directly related to substandard housing,” Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, said at a news conference announcing the legislation this week. “And some landlords are simply lawless bad actors.”

Rafael E. Cestero, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said that while the repayments were not what the city had hoped for, the program had nonetheless been a success.

“This is not a program aimed at collecting money,” Mr. Cestero said. “It’s to ensure that the citizens of our city don’t live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Under the original measure, which was part of the city’s 2007 Safe Housing Act, the city identified 200 of the worst buildings and ordered landlords to make repairs within four months or be subject to stiff penalties. If the landlord failed to make repairs, the city did them itself. If the landlord did not repay the repair costs and associated fines and fees, the city placed a lien against the building, which the landlord would have to repay before refinancing or selling. The city also publishes the addresses of the 200 buildings on a widely circulated “worst buildings” list.

Mr. Cestero said that one-third of the buildings that had been in the program got off the list because owners did the fixes themselves. A second third, he said, entered into agreements with the city after vowing to make the fixes over time. The final third, he said, accounted for the $17 million because owners ignored orders to make repairs.

That money, Mr. Cestero said, would “absolutely” be paid back, as owners eventually refinanced or sold their buildings. “It could be many years, or it could be next year,” he said.

The expanded legislation, introduced on Tuesday by Ms. Quinn, would also allow for landlords to enter payment plans with the city, which Mr. Cestero said should help the city recoup money spent.

Even though the city would include more than triple the number of units currently in the program, Mr. Cestero said its costs would not increase substantially. While larger buildings would be singled out under the new program, there would still be a maximum of 200 buildings on the “worst” list. This meant, Mr. Cestero said, that the city would probably still be doing major repair work — like fixing water supply systems and roofs — on the same number of buildings. “Replacing a roof on a 20-unit building is not exponentially more expensive than a six-unit building,” he said.

The new measure, which is expected to be passed with little resistance, has the enthusiastic support of housing rights advocates, who said the program had already vastly improved life for thousands of tenants. Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee, said that saving decrepit buildings had a positive ripple effect on neighborhoods, stabilizing communities by keeping tenants in place, in safe homes.

The hope is that the new law will help drive down asthma rates in the poorest neighborhoods. “We believe it’s going to confirm our theory that aggressive code enforcement reduces asthma triggers, which in turn leads to fewer asthma attacks,” said Javier Valdés, a deputy director for the community group Make the Road New York.

Joseph Strasberg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 building managers and landlords, said he was concerned that landlords could be penalized for asthma triggers that were beyond their control, like the poor quality of outside air. But his group would not oppose the new measure, he said, if it was only used to identify “the really bad guys.”