En Español Know Your Rights
Source: SILive.com
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

City Pushed to Action on Staten Island Tenants’ Nightmares

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — It’s a baby step in a big housing mess on the North Shore.

The city’s housing agency plans to investigate several Port Richmond homes, prompted by an Advance story last week that detailed the deplorable conditions in which its renters live.

Officials from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) also plan to sit down with City Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore) and the Staten Island fire commissioner on Thursday to discuss how to deal with the squalid and unsafe conditions of cheap rentals on the North Shore.

“There are a proliferation of these types of housing situations in my district, and above all we want to ensure they are safe,” Ms. Rose said.

HPD will likely have to make emergency repairs on the buildings, then bill the landlords, she added.

But advocates say fixing the Island’s housing problem won’t be as easy — and it may only be getting worse, as unscrupulous owners take advantage of poor residents and an influx immigrants who have few housing choices, and an overburdened housing agency.

“The North Shore has sort of a perfect storm as far as bad housing conditions are concerned,” said John Whitlow, an attorney for the Port Richmond-based advocacy group, Make The Road New York, which specializes in housing issues.

“My sense is that (the North Shore) may be the worst of the worst in the city, because of so many immigrants and so little rent-stabilized stock that landlords can get rid of tenants who cause too much trouble,” he added.

Whitlow and his organization have helped dozens of tenants in disputes with landlords, but virtually all of their work is in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. That highlights another factor in the deteriorating housing situation on the North Shore: There are almost no housing advocates to stand up for Island tenants.

And many tenants won’t stand up for themselves. Immigrants, whether because of their status or unfamiliarity with the law, are not likely to complain. Others, who live in illegal conversions, single-room occupancies (SROs) or apartments that are not rent stabilized, have the right to file a complaint – but no legal protection from being summarily evicted for doing so.

LANDLORDS’ TACTICS

Landlords savvy about the state’s rental laws know the magic number is six — that is, when building is converted into six apartments or more, it becomes rent stabilized, thus conferring more rights to tenants. One key right — the so-called “retaliation provision” — protects them from being evicted without cause.

“Landlords who don’t want to deal with troublesome tenants just throw them out,” Whitlow said.

Even tenants with full legal rights struggle to get negligent landlords to make necessary repairs — because they cannot find them. Landlords often conceal ownership in city documents by using post office boxes as company addresses, listing employees as owners, or by creating a shell company (usually limited liability companies, or LLCs) for each building they own.

The City Council addressed this issue by passing a law in February that requires a landlord who controls more than a 25 percent stake in an LLC to be listed in city registration documents. But even HPD officials have expressed doubt that it will bring landlords out of hiding.

Likewise, the city can only enforce the law for dwellings it knows about. The city, whether it’s HPD, the FDNY or the Department of Buildings (DOB), does not have the resources to inspect every single building, every year, so uncounted illegally converted homes go unnoticed and uninspected. Sometimes, until it’s too late.

Earlier this month, the DOB issued fines totaling up to $75,000 to the owner of 219 Morningstar Rd. for illegally converting the second floor into SROs. But that was after a 40-year-old resident was killed in a fire that turned her attic room into a death trap on Nov. 3.

EXTREME CASES

Such is often the case when the city sues a slumlord or makes emergency repairs: It almost always happens after the building is practically falling apart. Even then, the city often has to sue just to get access to the building, since landlords have the same property rights as any other building owner.

For the most part, HPD relies on “self-certification” to keep its buildings in decent shape. After a HPD inspector issues a violation, the landlord has a certain number of days to make the necessary repairs, then fill out a form, signed by a notary public, that states the work has been completed. The violation stays on the building’s record until the landlord files for a dismissal, which requires an inspector to come back and check the work.

But there are no fines for not filing for a dismissal, and many landlords would rather not have inspectors come back to check the work, anyway — whether it was completed or not. That likely explains why some Island buildings have hundreds of “open” violations, in many cases dating back decades.

To address that, the city passed The Fair Housing Law in 2007, which requires HPD to identify 200 buildings every year with the worst housing code violations and target them for aggressive inspection, follow-up and comprehensive repairs. Only two Staten Island buildings have made the list.

Another twist to the city’s housing regulation problem is a 40-year-old state law that that prevents cities “having a population of one million or more” from enacting stronger rent regulations without the approval of the state housing commissioner. Housing advocates say repealing the so-called Urstadt Law would give the city the power to keep rent affordable and expand eviction protection.

Borough President James Molinaro offered an even simpler solution to the North Shore’s troubled housing.

“Shut them down, and remove the people until they are made safe. That’s it,” Molinaro said. “This is New York City. There is no reason people should not be living like this.”