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

Council Passes Bill Enabling City to Fix Worst Buildings

 The City Council passed a bill yesterday giving the city broad new powers to go after landlords with histories of serious code violations.


The bill, known as the Safe Housing Act, would require the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to identify 200 buildings each year with the worst histories of emergency repairs and uncorrected code violations and force their landlords to make repairs. If they refuse, the department will make the repairs itself and bill the landlords.

The bill goes further than current regulations in requiring not just repairs of the immediate problems, like a leaky pipe, but also overhauls of the entire system causing the problems, like bad plumbing and boilers or faulty electrical wiring.

City officials hope the program, which has the support of the mayor as well as landlord and tenants groups, will bring up to 1,000 buildings into compliance over the next five years, when the bill calls for the program to be evaluated.

"This bill is a full-out, governmental full-court press against slumlords in the city of New York," said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. "I hope the message this bill sends is that if you’re a slumlord, your days are numbered. If you’re a slumlord, you’d better get your building up to code. If you don’t, we’re going to go out there and bring your building to code for you, and we’re going to charge you for it."

Ms. Quinn said that uncooperative landlords who refuse to pay could be taken to court, or liens might be placed on the property, which could eventually be confiscated.

"We don’t want to do that, but ultimately we can take it over and put the building into an appropriate housing program," she added. "We are not interested in becoming massive landlords again. We’ve done it before and we’re not that good at it; we don’t want to try it again. But we will take a landlord’s property if they don’t pay."

In addition to making buildings safe and habitable, the bill is aimed at preserving the city’s diminishing inventory of low- and moderate-income housing. Under state rent regulations, landlords of rent-stabilized apartments can raise the rent by 20 percent if an apartment becomes vacant and add part of the cost of improvements and renovations to the monthly rent. When the rent reaches $2,000 a month, the apartment falls out of the regulated system and can be rented at market rates.

Low-income housing advocates say some landlords, hoping to take advantage of the strong real estate market, have let their properties decline to force renters out.

The bill was sponsored by Councilwoman Letitia James, a Democrat of Brooklyn, and signed by more than a dozen members. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is expected to sign it into law within the next 30 days. The law would go into effect five months later.

The bill would require landlords to make repairs and pay all outstanding charges within four months of receiving notice that they have been placed on the list of 200 buildings. If the owner makes repairs, the Housing and Preservation Department will monitor the building at least every three months for at least a year.

"Finally, the city will have some real power to go after the worst slumlords out there," said Ray Brescia, associate director of the Urban Justice Center, a legal services organization.

Housing advocates say the most common violations include rat and other vermin infestations, lack of heat and hot water, and broken windows and doors.

"This bill grew out of a true need for reform of our city’s housing code," Ms. James said. "I still see situations every week where landlords ignore serious violations for months and months."

(Make the Road By Walking member) Michelle Menthe, a tenant advocate from Bushwick, Brooklyn, said the eight-unit building she has lived in since 2005 "is a dump."

"We had no heat for most of that time," she said. "Our windows are still broken. There is no electricity in most of the building. Our floor is covered in towels because there was a water main leak. There have been several fires in the basement. It’s great that our city government is finally doing something about this so that my children don’t have to live like this anymore."