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Know Your Rights
Source: Daily News
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

New York City must ensure the right of all tenants to live in safe housing

The city should take steps to force scofflaw landlords to make needed repairs, the author says, noting that the quality of life is declining for many working class and immigrant residents of gentrifying neighborhoods even as rents spiral upward and landlords woo affluent newcomers.

Just a few blocks from Bushwick hotspot Roberta’s, where well-heeled diners can sample the chef’s tasting menu for $180 a head, Urania Medal wonders whether she and her family will have heat this winter.

Last year, Urania’s landlord sold her building, and the new owner — no doubt seeing the potential new market — told all of the existing immigrant tenants that they had to leave. They all left — except Urania, who’s had to pay a hefty price for her strong stance.

She was left without heat for most of last winter; the landlord gutted the building around her, removing walls, windows and floors in the empty apartments, and then her own ceiling collapsed. Eventually, the city replaced the boiler, but she continues to live in the middle of an idle construction site.

It’s become fashionable in recent years to hail Bushwick’s “renaissance,” but for many longtime residents of this working class and immigrant community, living conditions have worsened — even as rents have skyrocketed.

As a tenant attorney in Bushwick, every day I hear about leaks, cracks, mold, vermin, cockroaches, bed bugs, loose tiles, peeling paint and no heat. Far too often, landlords ignore tenant complaints — or worse, they harass tenants to move out.

If a landlord does not make needed repairs, a tenant can call 311 to request an inspection by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which can result in the issuance of a violation.

But what happens next, if the landlord still won’t make the repairs? Some violations can languish for months, even years, until either HPD or the tenant sues the landlord in housing court.

Even then, the court case can drag on, and the landlord can usually get off with a nominal fine and a promise to repair.

Landlords in neighborhoods like Bushwick seem to lack a real incentive to provide basic maintenance and repairs. It makes more economic sense to push out low-income and working-class tenants, and renovate the apartment for young professionals willing to pay double or triple the rent.

In light of this reality, the city created the Alternative Enforcement Program, or AEP. Each year, landlords of the 200 buildings with the highest number of hazardous violations are required to address all of these bad conditions within four months. If they don’t, HPD will step in to make the repairs and pass the bill onto these landlords.

For Nerida Velez, the placement of her building in the AEP led to real relief. The owner of her building essentially abandoned the property. Her family had no toilet for four months. There were the moldy walls, faulty outlets, rotting cabinets, mice, cockroaches and no lock on the building door.

Even after her living room ceiling collapsed, Nerida stayed in her apartment, where she’s lived for over 30 years. Through the AEP, the city replaced Nerida’s toilet, repaired the collapsed ceiling of her living room, and made other vital repairs, making her home of 30 years safer and more livable.

A recent survey by Make the Road New York found that tenants living in AEP buildings reported a real improvement in housing conditions, thanks to the work of HPD. The city should build on that success by expanding the program.

We also found that many AEP tenants lacked information about the program and the progress of repairs. It is critical for the city to improve its communication with tenants, to make sure they are aware of their rights.

The city should establish a Repair Enforcement Board, giving HPD the power to collect fines for bona fide violations without having to haul landlord into court, just as the Department of Buildings or the Department of Sanitation can do now.

New York is a city that is rightfully proud of its diversity. If we want a “renaissance” that can be shared by all members of the community, we need to ensure the right of all tenants to live in safe housing.

Ezra Kautz is staff attorney for Make the Road New York.

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