Ensure All New Yorkers Have Safe and Healthy Housing
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In 2019, the tenant movement secured major new protections for renters at the state level, as well as the creation of the Tenant Anti-Ha- rassment Unit at HPD and the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants. Despite these gains, a chaotic enforcement system and lack of interagency coordination means too many landlords are still getting away with harassment and neglected repairs. Black and Latinx New Yorkers are more than twice as likely to report deferred maintenance in their homes,31 yet the City’s enforcement regime fails to collect civil penalties when landlords refuse to make repairs. A 2018 analysis from the New York Times found that in the 126 most egregious housing court cases in Manhattan, the City settled the cases for 15% or less of the possible penalties, with an average settlement of about $4,000 and a promise to complete repairs, which may or may not be completed.
Meanwhile in public housing, physical conditions continue to deteriorate, affecting residents’ health and quality-of-life. For example, a recent survey of NYCHA residents in five developments in the Rockaways found that 81% needed immediate repairs to their apartments, 25% said that their living conditions were negatively impacting their physical health, and 33% said their living conditions were negatively impacting their mental health.33 While those living in private housing can call 311 to report needed repairs, public housing tenants deal directly with NYCHA, meaning there is no independent verification of complaints, making follow-up and documentation a challenge. In 2017, NYCHA claimed it had inspected thousands of apartments for lead paint, when in fact these inspections never happened.34 These issues are not just nuisances, they can have dire consequences – lead paint can cause develop- mental issues in children; additionally, one-third of Rockaway survey respondents who said they had mold in their apartments reported resulting respiratory issues.35 These poor housing conditions can have long-term health consequences for residents, leaving them particularly vulnera- ble to the impacts of COVID-19.
The Integrated Housing Plan must ensure that no one is permanently displaced due to poor housing conditions or harassment, secure our communities by ensuring the long-term viability of the city’s affordable housing stock, and guarantee that every New Yorker has a safe, healthy, and stable home.
Priority 5: Ensure All New Yorkers Have Safe and Healthy Housing
- Hold bad landlords accountable.
- Create stronger rules to prevent bad actors from doing business with the City. Landlords with demonstrated records of tenant harassment, deferred maintenance, and/or discriminating based on source of income, should not be eligible to receive City funding and should not have properties returned to them after going through City programs such as 7A. (This will become even more urgent as new State legislation is set to potentially send more buildings to 7A administrators.37)
- Create a civil penalty structure that escalates based on type of condition, underlying conditions, and timing of repairs. The penalties must be significant enough to disincentivize private, speculative owners from purchasing a property that needs significant repairs.
- Recover 100% of civil penalties when landlords fail to make repairs. As the Times investigation showed, delinquent landlords let violations pile up knowing that the City won’t collect. Enforcement needs both carrot and stick to be effective. HPD should work in collaboration with tenants and/or organizers to determine how to handle prosecution. These funds can be used as leverage for a preservation purchase.
- Expand the Emergency Repair Program (ERP), specifically to cover more instances where landlords have jeopardized living conditions for primarily low-income individuals and families by neglecting to make necessary health and hazard repairs over a specific period of time.
- Expand the Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP). HPD describes this program, which identifies buildings with high numbers of violations for priority repairs, as one of its “most effective enforcement tools for addressing distressed properties.”38 The agency currently identifies 250 buildings per year for repairs through this program, and should add more.
- Bring harassment and discrimination claims against landlords. The City has historically relied on tenants and third-party legal services organizations to bring anti-harassment and discrimination claims. The City must more aggressively exercise its right to bring claims on behalf of tenants and dissuade future bad actors.
- Expand Certification of No Harassment (CONH). The pilot program, which requires landlords to demonstrate they have not harassed their tenants before demolishing a building or making major alterations, should be made permanent and expanded citywide.
- Increase funding for anti-harassment work and tenant organizing, including legal services and education, by mission-driven and community-based organizations.
- Educate judges, court personnel, and City agencies on harassment, including existing legislation and remedies. Within the last five years, the City Council has made numerous changes to the Housing Maintenance Code to prevent tenant harassment and punish landlords who harass tenants. Unfortunately, courts and City agencies have not caught up with those changes, and their practices and decisions do not allow tenants to use the full extent of the law to combat harassment. More training of judges, court personnel, and City agencies would help ensure that those laws are actually enforced.
- Expand Right to Counsel. The current law, which guarantees low-income tenants the right to counsel in housing court, should be immediately implemented across NYC. The law should also be expanded to help more tenants by covering all cases where evictions happen and by doubling the income threshold to 400% of the federal poverty line. The City should also fund community organizing groups so that tenants know and assert their rights.
- Require landlords to post a Tenants’ Bill of Rights in every rental building. The Bill of Rights, posted in multiple languages, would include information about tenants’ right to a safe and healthy home, information about how to report violations, regulations regarding heat and hot water, and other resources such as information on rent regulation and protections available for domestic violence survivors.39
- Expand funding for and legalize Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). The Pratt Center for Community Development and Chhaya CDC estimated in 2009 that as many as 1 in 16 New Yorkers, primarily immigrants, were living in ADUs40, such as basement and cellar apartments, and that number is likely to have grown significantly since then as housing prices have continued to rise. Through updating the regulatory framework for these units and providing homeowners with an amnesty program, access to low- or no-interest loans, financial counseling, and regulatory agreements to protect tenants, the City could make safe and stable at least 200,000 new, legal apartments and ensure safety and guarantee affordable rents for the population already living in them.41 The de Blasio administration announced support for expansion of the East New York Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot program in February of 2020, but promptly pulled funding from the pilot and any future expansion due to COVID-related budget cuts.42 The next administration should prioritize following through on the pilot and expanding the program citywide.
- Streamline NYCHA’s system for repairs.
- Create an office or entity within NYCHA dedicated to execution of capital improvements and require them to submit monthly, public reports on progress and staffing capacity.
- Require cyclical inspections of all NYCHA units, including converted (Section 8/RAD) developments.
- Prioritize repairs that affect health, such as mold, lead, and heat and hot water, and ensure that repairs are good quality and address underlying conditions.
- Allow NYCHA residents to use the 311 system to better track complaints, violations, and repairs. Hold NYCHA accountable for completing these repairs.