Mayors Budget Threatens Tenants
by Jenny Laurie
Despite the huge surplus of $1.6 billion projected for next year, Mayor Rudolph Giulianis proposed budget for fiscal 2000 contains devastating cuts to programs and services for New York City tenants. Instead of spending money on critically important housing-code enforcement, emergency rent grants, legal services for low-income families facing eviction, or lead abatement, the Mayor has proposed spending the coming years budget surplus on paying down the debt, developing sports stadiums, paying healthy corporations to remain in the city, and further expanding the police department.
Giulianis preliminary budget, released in January, cut some programs, like code enforcement, that he has never strongly supported Mayor, and completely eliminated others like eviction-prevention programs, SRO legal services, assistance to the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court (which provides basic information to tenants without lawyers in Housing Court), and the citys contribution to housing for homeless people with AIDS. In 1998, breaking with the tradition of letting the mayor dictate budgets, the Council, led by Speaker Peter Vallone who was running for governor, rejected Giulianis program cuts and passed its own budget. The Mayor vetoed the Council budget, and when the Council overrode the veto, the administration refused to spend the money. Following last Novembers elections, Giuliani and the Council forged a compromise, restoring some of the items withheld by the mayor.
Last year, in the midst of a code-enforcement crisis, tenant advocates lobbied for more housing inspectors, more attorneys to go after landlords who fail to correct hazardous conditions, and increases in the unit that does emergency repairs in buildings when landlords ignore life-threatening conditions. With just over 200 inspectors, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development was unable to respond to calls from tenants complaining about emergency conditions in apartments. It was also unable to force landlords to make the repairs it did order, or to repair them itself when the owner refused. It was also unable to stop landlords from falsely certifying that violations had been corrected. The Council added $2 million for code enforcement, to allow for the hiring of 78 more inspectors. In the battle of vetoes and impoundments, that amount was later negotiated down to just over $1 million, for hiring inspectors and litigators and to fund emergency repairs.
Where is HPD today? At testimony before the Housing and Buildings Committee in March, HPD Commissioner Richard Roberts revealed that money allocated in the current years budget for inspectors and attorneys had not been spent, but that the additional inspectors were just then being hired. Roberts testified on March 8 that the department had hired 11 new inspectors in January, 13 in February, and planned to get up to 240, which he said was a number adequate to do the job. However, the Mayors pre- liminary budget calls for the elimination of 15 jobs, which means that the HPD inspectors hired in March and April will be have to be fired by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.
When questioned by members of the Housing Committee at the hearing, Roberts was unable to answer very basic questions about the performance of the depart- ments code enforcement operation.
When Joe Corso of the Allied Building Inspectors Union, the union representing the code inspectors, was asked about HPDs Emergency Repair Program (a unit which used to go out to buildings and make emergency repairs, or contract out more complicated jobs, such as repairing boilers when a building has no heat for weeks during the winter), he laughed: There is no system. The system is for someone at HPD to call the landlord over and over and remind him that theres no heat in the building. What has become clear to advocates is that the Mayor and the HPD Commissioner have made it policy to stop enforcing the housing code. The message to landlords is that they will not get violations for bad maintenance and service. This is made clear through budget cuts, the departments refusal to spend money already budgeted, and even where there is money, the refusal to use it to enforce the law.
While the mayors budget adds $2 million to the $22 million already budgeted for lead-paint abatement, Commissioner Roberts was unable to tell the Housing Committee how the money would be spent. Councilmember Robles pointed out that HPD had just this year started signing contracts for the use of $8.5 million which was allocated by the Council in 1996.
According to Andrew Goldberg, counsel to the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has been lobbying for an effective lead-poisoning prevention system for years, HPDs policy is to take complaints from tenants through the Central Complaint hotline, and then call the landlord and say if you dont go in there and fix the peeling paint or leak, we are going to place a violation. The problem with that, according to Goldberg, is that unless a lead-paint violation is placed, the landlord is under no legal obligation to use safe procedures for fixing the condition and ensuring that children are not exposed to the dust; standard scraping and sanding puts more lead dust in the air and puts children in the apartment at great risk.
The $22 million could be used to hire extra inspectors, for training the HPD inspectors so that their skill level matches that of private lead inspectors, Goldberg says. That money could have a dramatic impact by sending a strong message to owners that you must correct violations before the child is poisoned. He points out that if the money were used to fund an effective program, it might be a catalyst for Intro 205, the Council bill supported by the New York Coalition to End Lead Paint Poisoning, of which Met Council is a part.
Goldberg points out the importance of code enforcement. Landlords obey housing codes out of fear of inspection and punishment. As long as one in three landlords fraudulently certify that violations have been removed, and all HPD does is place another violation, theres no credible threat. According to studies by Comptroller Alan Hevesi, HPD has about 66,000 outstanding lead violations, and one in three landlords falsely certify that violations have been removed.
The city funds eviction prevention through the Human Resources Administration (the welfare agency) as well as HPD. Traditionally, the city has acknowledged that this money is cost-effective because the assistance goes primarily to families on public assistance being sued in Housing Court, who would end up in the shelter system at much higher cost if not for the eviction-prevention work. In recent testimony before the General Welfare Committee, HRA Commissioner Jason Turner argued that since welfare benefits expire after five years under recent reforms enacted at the federal and state levels, we need to do more to help individuals manage their housing financial responsibilities, not to just buy out the problem. While he went on to testify to the need to work out long-term solutions to solving these eviction problems, his immediate solution is to end all HRA funding to the legal organizations which do Jiggetts workwinning additional housing aid for welfare recipients facing eviction under a ruling that the state welfare rent allotment, $286 a month for a family of three, is too low to pay rent in New York City. This proposal is in line with the thinking that getting evicted and living in a shelter will encourage welfare recipients to get jobs. Nowhere in Turners testimony was there any acknowledgment that housing costs in the city are far above what low-wage workers can afford.
According to Ken Rosenfeld, director of legal services at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, an organization that works with tenants in Washington Heights and Inwood, this particular cut in the city budget for legal services (Emergency Assistance to Families, or EAF) means that he will lose 60 to 70% of his staff. We will be working with 3,500 fewer clients next year if this budget goes through. Judith Goldiner, of the Legal Aid Society, adds that Legal Services and Legal Aid offices throughout the city face similarly disastrous staff cuts if the budget passes as is.
To add to the threat, Governor Patakis proposed budget also has large cuts in the state money that goes to civil legal services. The Mayor has also eliminated money for SRO legal services, the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, which helps tenants forced to represent themselves in Housing Court, and the citys contribution to house homeless people with AIDS.
In its response to the Mayors proposal, the City Council advocates restoring many of the cuts, including $5.6 million for code enforcement and anti-eviction services. According to Council Member Stanley Michels, a member of the Housing Committee, we are doing (the restorations) because the money is desperately needed. Code enforcement is our first line of defense in preserving affordable housing. Today, there is no federal or state affordable- housing program; the only game in town is preserving what we have, and that means code enforcement and preventing the eviction of low-income tenants. The Councils Preliminary Budget Response, released on March 29, shows its willingness to once again, take on the Mayor. A recent report by the City Project shows deep inequities throughout the Mayors preliminary budget and his financial plan for the next three years, summarized as subsidizing baseball, privatizing poverty. The citys libraries, museums, after-school programs, and senior centers are all targeted for substantial cuts, while $900 million goes toward the development of a new sports stadium and $79 million to minor-league baseball stadiums, $98 million for subsidizing business development in the new Hudson River Park, $1.5 billion in tax cuts for 43 corporations ostensibly to keep them from leaving the city, and $225 million to help the NY Stock Exchange.
The budget goes into effect on July 1. Met Council is working to ensure that the Council stands up for all New Yorkers and passes a budget that meets our needs. We urge all readers to get involved in our efforts. Contact your City Council Member and urge his or her support in this important battle.