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Know Your Rights
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Bill Proposes New Penalties for Landlords

The New York City Council is making a push to crack down on landlords who let their buildings fall into disrepair. Legislation to be introduced Wednesday could mean that hundreds of landlords around the city could face additional financial penalties.

The legislative package would double the size of the Alternative Enforcement Program, which identifies the city’s worst buildings, and triggers tougher actions to address them.

It would also allow the city to impose fees on landlords who fail repeated inspections of the same violation, significantly expanding the financial penalties for building-code violations.

The bill, known as the Quality Housing Act, is co-sponsored by Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres, chairman of the committee on public housing, and Brooklyn City Councilman Antonio Reynoso.

Mr. Torres said it was important to give the city’s building-code enforcement more teeth.

“If you have a condition in your apartment you can call 311, [and the Housing Preservation and Development Department] will inspect it. It’s a little like a parking ticket without a fine,” Mr. Torres said. “There’s no incentive for the landlord to correct or cure a [less serious] violation.”

Under the city’s current process, both tenants and the Housing Preservation and Development Department can take a landlord who commits multiple violations to court to force him or her to correct the violations, providing an incentive to take care of the problems.

Landlord advocates said imposing additional penalties on owners who are already financially struggling would make it even more difficult for them to afford to make repairs.

“In a situation where the rents themselves are too low or you have tenants who have withheld rent for a variety of reasons, instead of trying to identify the owner as a bad guy, the solution is for the city…to come in and try to find out what the hell is going on,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association.

With a connected piece of legislation, Mr. Reynoso is pushing for changes to the Alternative Enforcement Program.

“Our landlords have gotten out of hand,” Mr. Reynoso said. “They’re using the most aggressive tactics to drive out rent-stabilized tenants.The level of neglect is as terrible as I’ve seen.”

He said that he had seen an increasing number of examples in his district, which includes Bushwick and Williamsburg, of landlords allowing rent-regulated apartments to fall into disrepair in order to drive tenants out and ultimately turn the building over to market-rate tenants.

Advocates said they had seen the same thing.

“Some negligent landlords are not making the repairs that are necessary in order to push out long-term tenants in neighborhoods that are gentrifying,” said Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to build 80,000 units of new housing and preserve 120,000 units over the next decade.

But some advocates fear that the focus on creating new housing will overshadow the importance of maintaining the city’s existing homes.

In the most recent budget, the mayor allocated $1 million for additional staff for the Alternative Enforcement Program, which was created in 2007 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and allows HPD to identify 200 apartment buildings around the city in the worst state of repair.

If the landlord doesn’t perform repairs within four months, HPD will notify tenants and may hire a contractor to perform the repairs and bill the owner, and may also charge hundreds of dollars of additional fees per unit as long as the building remains in the program.

It is unclear if the $1 million would be enough to support a doubling of the program.

A spokesman for the housing department said it was “always open to new ideas that strengthen the tools we use and increase our ability to enforce the provisions of the housing and maintenance codes, and we look forward to working with the Council as the process moves forward.”

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