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City Council Hearing Blasts HPD on Housing-Code Failures by Kenny Schaeffer

At a City Council hearing on Oct. 4, tenants, housing experts and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields blasted the Giuliani administration’s failure to enforce the city’s housing-maintenance code, which prescribes minimum standards for life, health and safety in multiple dwellings and provides for fines and imprisonment of delinquent owners.

The hearing was called in direct response to the August fire at 27 Brevoort Place in Brooklyn that took the life of 13-year old Ashley Sims. City Department of Housing Preservation and Development inspectors had failed to act on an "immediately hazardous" violation placed against the building’s owner for an inoperable sprinkler system. Under existing law, HPD could either have taken the landlord to court to require repair of this life-threatening condition, or done the work itself under its Emergency Repair Program and billed the landlord for the costs. Instead, HPD officials simply closed the case when they could not get into the building to reinspect it.

Adrian Di Lollo of the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development testified that the Mayor’s Management Report reveals a dramatic 27% drop in the recording of immediately hazardous violations in fiscal year 2000, and that HPD’s target for the coming year is 82,000 fewer reinspections than last year. He adds that the number of attorneys in HPD’s litigation bureau has been cut in half and the number of its housing inspectors stuck at less than one-third its 1989 level.

To make matters worse, the Office of Court Administration has limited the "HP" part of Housing Court, where tenants or the city can bring actions against landlords for failing to correct hazardous conditions, to only three days a week in Manhattan and two days a week in Queens. According to information from the Independent Budget Office and the city comptroller, fines levied against delinquent owners have plummeted from $5.1 million in 1989 to an average of $1.6 million a year since 1995.

Dave Robinson, presenting testimony on behalf of Legal Services for NYC, the Legal Aid Society and the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., called on the Council to "demand of HPD a real commitment to strong and thorough enforcement of the laws protecting tenants’ rights to decent, safe and habitable homes." He noted that although the number of housing inspectors had increased modestly after the Council amended the mayor’s budget last year, the number of inspections actually performed had decreased by 3,500 in the last fiscal year.

Borough President Fields, in written testimony stated, her land use, housing and development director, stated that the death of Ashley Simms was "indicative of systemic negligence that requires immediate attention and remedy... The public health and safety is at risk." She reminded her former colleagues in the Council that in 1995, she introduced the legislation that created an "early warning system" for distressed buildings following a building collapse at 142 West 140th St. that killed three people. The city had ignored hundreds of code violations in that building, just as it ignored the hazards at 27 Brevoort Place.

"How long can these policies continue?" she demanded. "It is time for a public outcry against this kind of inaction by HPD and demand that adequate personnel be utilized to aggressively enforce the Housing Code. The government must protect its citizens’ lives and safety by taking a more proactive role."

Kevin Ryan, head of the Community Training & Resource Center (CTRC), pointed out that since 1993, HPD has discontinued or severely cut back the "cyclical" inspections that regularly surveyed building conditions in neighborhoods throughout New York; "lead belt" inspections in the neighborhoods where children are at greatest risk of lead poisoning; cellar-to-roof inspectors initiated by tenant organizations that have identified multiple code violations in a building; and night inspections to determine whether boilers are providing adequate heat throughout the night.

He testified that in 1998 CTRC consulted with the inspectors’ union and determined that $27 million would be required to hire an additional 600 inspectors to bring the staff back to pre-budget-cut levels, "a minimal amount considering the budgets of other essential services, such as crime prevention and health care." Ryan cited a 1999 Boston Medical Center report which showed that poor housing conditions can lead to serious illnesses, "such as asthma and respiratory diseases caused by cockroaches, rats, mold, and inadequate heating," as well as lead poisoning.

Met Council staff organizer Dave Powell called for the city to make an example by imprisoning some of the worst landlords who defy court orders to correct hazardous conditions endangering their tenants, pointing out that this would result in increased voluntary compliance by other owners.

In a related development, the city Department of Buildings has been rocked by a corruption scandal. Unlike previous scandals, in which more than 100 inspectors have been arrested in four separate bribery scandals over the past decade, the current indictments include five top-echelon DOB officials, including the second in command, Deputy Buildings Commissioner for Operations Barry Cox. Mayor Giuliani, who has fiddled a law-and-order, quality-of-life tune while the DOB and HPD scandals have simmered, admitted that he should have done something "six or seven years ago" about the DOB, which Investigations Commissioner Edward Kuriansky described as "the most corrupt agency in city government" over the past 20 years.

The Buildings Department has overlapping responsibility with HPD for multiple dwellings, with DOB being responsible for boilers, elevators and structural defects, and HPD having responsibility for other conditions. Housing Court has jurisdiction over both HPD and DOB violations.

To join Met Council’s efforts to force HPD to do its job, call Dave Powell at (212) 693-0553. ext. 6.