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

City to Seek Broader Power Over Buildings

The legislation that is now known as the “Safe Housing Act” was spearheaded by Make the Road by Walking, City Council Members, and other community organizations and institutions. We have been active for over two years in bringing about the passage of the bill formerly called the “Healthy Homes Act”.   

New York City wants to strengthen its hand against recalcitrant landlords by giving itself broad new powers to overhaul entire building systems — like heating, electrical or plumbing — in long-troubled properties, and to force landlords to pay for the work.

A bill to be introduced in the City Council today with the Bloomberg administration’s support would give the Department of Housing Preservation and Development the right to go into buildings that have dozens of serious housing code violations and a history of emergency repairs, do cellar-to-roof inspections and fix not only immediate problems, but also the underlying systems.

The proposed program, which city officials said would go beyond anything they knew of elsewhere, is intended to bring as many as a thousand severely run-down buildings into compliance with the housing maintenance code over the next five years and to shore up the supply of habitable apartments for lower-income families at a time when the inventory of lower-priced housing is rapidly declining.

“If a tenant abandons an apartment because it’s not habitable, then that unit is at risk of coming off the rolls of regulated and affordable units,” said Ray Brescia, associate director of the Urban Justice Center, a legal-services organization that supports the plan, “because the landlord can make the repairs that it’s been neglecting, then jack up the rent over the regulated amount.”

Under the city’s rent rules, the landlord of a rent-stabilized apartment can raise the rent 20 percent after it is vacated and can also add 2.5 percent of the cost of any improvements or renovations to the monthly rent. If a vacant apartment’s rent hits

$2,000, it falls out of the regulation system and the rent can rise to the market rate.

Under the current code-enforcement program, the city can make emergency repairs on specific problems in privately owned buildings when an owner fails to do so, and then try to collect the costs from the owner.

The bill, which needs to be approved by the Council and the mayor, and would take five months to be put into effect if passed, would significantly expand that power.

The new rules would apply to buildings with at least 27 uncorrected code violations, over the previous two years, of the sort considered hazardous to health and safety, and with an average of five such violations per unit. The buildings must also have unpaid charges left over from earlier instances when the city had made emergency repairs.

The housing agency would give an owner four months to correct the violations and pay all outstanding charges. If the owner failed to do so, the agency would inspect the entire building, issue a comprehensive repair order and undertake the repairs itself if the landlord still did not do so.

If an owner failed to pay all the fines, fees and costs owed for the work done, the city would place a lien on the building. The owner would be unable to refinance or sell it without first paying the lien.

The city wants to add 200 buildings a year over the next five years to the new alternative enforcement program.

“What has tended to happen is that we get buildings that get a lot of emergency repairs over and over again,” said Shaun Donovan, the housing commissioner, describing the current system. “We might go in and fix the heating or take care of a lead-paint violation, but not get the underlying problems fixed for the long term.”

Under the new rules, the city could not only fix a leak in one apartment’s ceiling; it could also replace plumbing lines, if necessary, on several adjacent floors. And if inspectors found that the cause of heat shortages in that building was an antiquated boiler, the city could replace the boiler, too.

Mr. Donovan said that he expected the program to cost the city about $10 million a year, much of which it hoped to recoup from landlords. Currently, he said, the city collects more than 90 percent of its costs through the liens it places on buildings.

Christine C. Quinn, the council speaker, who worked as a tenant organizer between 1989 and 1991, said the new bill, which she is sponsoring with three other council members, arose out of a yearlong series of discussions with city officials, building owners and advocates for tenants on how best to take aim at the city’s most persistently dilapidated buildings.

Asked to give an example of a building that might become a target, administration officials described a 12-unit apartment house in East New York, Brooklyn, that they said has 178 uncorrected violations that are considered hazardous or immediately hazardous, and $10,000 in unpaid emergency-repair charges. The violations include gushing water leaks, loose plaster and electrical problems.

Councilwoman Letitia James, a co-sponsor of the bill, whose district includes Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, said that more than 10,000 buildings in the city received emergency repairs last year; 46 percent of them also received repairs in 2005 and 22 percent also did in 2004.

Referring to two large and troubled apartment complexes in her district, she said, “Elevators don’t work, rats run rampant,” and she described “mold in apartments, roofs that leak, windows that don’t work, ceilings that are collapsing.”

She said that tenants are unable to move out because they want to remain in the area and cannot find other apartments they can afford.

“It’s willful and intentional negligence,” Ms. James said. “These landlords want tenants to move. They recognize the housing market, they recognize that gentrification is spreading across Brooklyn and they want to capture the market. It’s like displacement by neglect.”

The proposed legislation, called the Safe Housing Act, has the support not only of tenant advocacy groups like Mr. Brescia’s, but also of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents property owners.

“As an owners’ organization, we’ve always sort of been tainted by bad landlords, which probably represent 1 percent of all building owners in the city,” said Frank P. Ricci, the association’s director of government affairs.

Of the proposed bill, he said, “We think it’s reasonable in that it’s really going to target owners who are irresponsible.”

Most of the buildings that are likely to be affected are relatively small, city housing officials said. They estimated that one-quarter have just 3 or 4 apartments, half have 5 to 8 apartments, one-eighth have 9 to 20 apartments and one-eighth have 21 or more apartments.