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Know Your Rights
Source: Make the Road New York
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Pubs & Reports

The Roof Over Our Heads: The Case For Stronger Enforcement Of New York City’s Housing Maintenance Code

New York City’s Housing Maintenance Code (the Code) establishes minimum standards for buildings with multiple apartments. Today, the Code contains some of the most progressive laws in the country regulating interior building conditions such as heat, water, light, plumbing, plaster, and rodents. Thanks, in part, to advocacy by Make the Road New York (MRNY) and other tenant organizations and legal service providers, the City’s current Code enforcement system also includes a number of effective enforcement policies. In 2007, the City Council passed the Safe Housing Act, groundbreaking legislation that took a targeted approach to improving the worst living conditions for New Yorkers and authorized the creation of the Alternate Enforcement Program (AEP). Each year, through the AEP, the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) selects 200 of the city’s most poorly-maintained residential buildings and notifies their landlords that the buildings require wide-scale repairs. If a landlord then fails to make those repairs, HPD may intervene to have the repairs made and recoup the cost of the repairs from the landlord.

Nevertheless, New York City continues to face a housing crisis, with much of its affordable housing stock falling into disrepair and many low-income tenants living in appalling conditions. Without strict mechanisms compelling landlords to adhere to the Code, substandard conditions go uncorrected in many working-class and poor neighborhoods, especially majority Latino and African American areas in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Upper Manhattan. This means that many tenants continue to live in substandard apartment buildings for far too long.

“Before my building was in the AEP program, the electricity was horrible, the pipe-heating would go on and off, we had rodents, and the light fixtures filled up with water, causing leaks. Once, breaking glass injured me. Now, after the AEP, there are new windows, new lighting and an exit sign in the hallway. Within my apartment there are new light bulbs, a refrigerator, and new walls. I would like to point out that the City did the work, not the landlord.” – Laura, a tenant in a large AEP building where she has lived for 30 years

While the AEP has substantially transformed conditions for many tenants in distressed buildings, the shortage of affordable housing in New York City means that the neighborhoods where landlords allow their buildings to fall into disrepair are often the same neighborhoods experiencing rapid gentrification and high levels of displacement. After hearing reports of landlords taking advantage of the AEP to force low-income tenants out, renovate the apartments and then rent to young professionals willing to pay a significantly higher rent, MRNY conducted a survey of tenants in AEP buildings. MRNY surveyed 85 tenants in AEP buildings in the area surrounding MRNY’s Brooklyn office, surveying tenants from a range of building sizes and covering buildings from all five years of the AEP.

Here, we report the results of those surveys. After five years of the AEP, they provide significant insight into the functioning of the AEP from the perspective of AEP building tenants – both in terms of those aspects of the AEP that function well and should be expanded upon, and those aspects of the AEP that may require improvement. They also point the way towards other enforcement mechanisms that might better preserve New York City’s housing stock and ensure that all tenants live in conditions that are safe, sanitary and comfortable.

“It’s a good idea for the City to make sure that landlords are making necessary repairs in the buildings with the worst conditions in New York City. The Alternative Enforcement Program should be expanded to benefit more tenants.” – Gladys Puglla, a tenant in Bushwick and MRNY member

This report will demonstrate that there is an intense and ongoing need for the AEP and that it should be expanded in order to increase its impact. MRNY believes, however, that safe and healthy housing conditions should not come at the expense of affordability – in other words, that tenants should be able to expect necessary repairs to be made without being displaced from their homes and communities as a result. MRNY recommends, therefore, that the AEP incorporate additional mechanisms to help prevent tenant displacement. Finally, based on the surveys we conducted, MRNY found that there is some room for improvement with regards to HPD’s communication with tenants and the quality and extent of repairs. MRNY believes that a series of minor adjustments to the AEP could greatly enhance its effectiveness.