Tenants: Preserve Rent-Regulated Housing

East Harlem tenants are calling for nothing more, and nothing less, than dignified housing for themselves, their families, and other low-income residents like themselves.
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Tenants in East Harlem, also known as "El Barrio," are asking pointed questions of the city agency tasked with preserving New York City's rent-regulated housing: the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The questions come amid the uproar over the recently announced rezoning of East Harlem, as well as the release of a new community study, which shows that HPD is failing to meet the needs of its neediest residents.

HPD has a mandate to ensure decent and dignified housing for the residents of rent-regulated apartments. Part of its job is to compel delinquent landlords to make necessary repairs. When they do not make those repairs, long-time residents are forced to live with dangerous and unhealthy conditions for months and years on end--and are often left with no choice but to leave. Tenants argue that lax enforcement by HPD lends cover to these illegal practices, which have allowed landlords to "flip" their properties, raise the rent, and reap huge profits in the process.

Residents of El Barrio been fighting displacement for a long time. Now, they are facing a new wave of gentrification in El Barrio, in the form of the rezoning of East Harlem recently announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Neighborhood organizations like Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), which has been at the frontlines of the fight for over a decade, are urging Mayor de Blasio to take decisive action to preserve rent-regulated housing in their community.

In recent months, members of MJB conducted a community survey of 484 of their neighbors to learn more about their experiences with the housing agency. The Data Center and the Public Science Project of the City University of New York worked closely with MJB to ensure the validity and reliability of the survey and the data. Their findings do not paint a pretty picture.

A whopping 61% of tenants surveyed went through much of the winter with no heat--many of them reportedly for weeks or months at a time. In nearly 1 in 3 cases, HPD never even sent an inspector to check on the heat and document the problem. What's more, tenants also report that HPD's Emergency Repair Program is failing those residents most in need. Although HPD has the means and the mandate to make emergency repairs--and to send landlords the bill--the findings show that HPD failed to resolve the issue in fully 78% of the cases surveyed.

Approximately 1 out of every 3 complaints registered with HPD went unanswered by city inspectors, according to the survey. In the absence of inspections, violations go unverified, crimes go undocumented, and repairs go unmade. For 1 in 4 tenants surveyed, maintenance problems were never resolved, even after being reported to the city on its 311 hotline. Tenants who called on HPD for help, and received none, were less likely to call for help a second time.

Another notable finding: Nearly half of all tenants do not even know that HPD exists, let alone that it has a mandate to secure repairs and safeguard affordable housing. Despite the fact that just about all of the residents surveyed reported maintenance problems in their apartments, half of them did not know there was an agency to turn to when landlords failed to make repairs.

And despite the city's rules requiring language access for non-English speakers, over 30 percent of tenants who received written notifications did not receive it in their own languages. MJB argues that tenants cannot know their rights or their options if they cannot read the notices.

At recent town hall meetings in the neighborhood, tenants have discussed solutions and arrived at a set of recommendations to help resolve the urgent issues uncovered by the community survey. Their findings, they say, point to a failure of oversight. If HPD is supposed to be overseeing landlords, these tenants ask, who is overseeing HPD?

On the basis of these findings, MJB argues that the oversight mechanisms now in place are not working for low-income tenants. The organization is therefore calling for the creation of an independent, citywide, supervisory commission, which can hold HPD accountable, investigate violations of tenants' rights, and ensure the agency meets its mandate to enforce the maintenance code and preserve affordable housing.

In response to the humanitarian crisis in those buildings where residents were denied heat or hot water this winter, MJB is calling for HPD to send inspectors within 24 hours, to require landlords to repair emergency conditions within 24 hours of notification, to fine landlords when they fail to do so, and to utilize the Emergency Repair Program's budget to make further repairs.

To ensure that there are real repercussions for landlords who fail to make repairs, the organization is also calling for the establishment of a new administrative tribunal with the authority to collect fines for housing code violations. In addition, MJB wants HPD to initiate and carry out a citywide public education program, one that will inform New Yorkers about the agency and its responsibility to preserve affordable housing.

These East Harlem tenants are calling for nothing more, and nothing less, than dignified housing for themselves, their families, and other low-income residents like themselves. To this end, they say, the mayor must take decisive action to address the structural flaws at HPD, and to preserve the city's fast-disappearing rent-regulated housing for its long-time, low-income residents.

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