For the past ten years, tenants in East Harlem who have been organizing for dignified housing and against displacement say they have faced a constant obstacle in their battles: the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). HPD is required to make sure landlords follow the law and make repairs. However, members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) find that many times and in many ways, HPD fails to do so. And when tenants are forced to live with dangerous, unhealthy conditions sometimes for years, MJB explains that many of them finally become so desperate they move out and are essentially displaced from their homes. MJB points out that landlords don’t make repairs for just this reason: when tenants move out, landlords can raise rents and reap huge profits.
Tenants in East Harlem (El Barrio) decided to take action and began by surveying nearly 500 of their neighbors to find out about their experiences with HPD. MJB partnered up with two research organizations in order to ensure the strength and reliability of their data. After surveying nearly 500 of their neighbors, their findings point to major problems with HPD’s performance.
First, data shows that nearly half of all tenants don’t know about HPD and the role it is supposed to play safeguarding affordable housing and getting landlords to make repairs and follow housing law. All residents surveyed had maintenance problems, but half of them did not know of a place to turn when landlords failed to make repairs, making them vulnerable to displacement.
Almost one third of the people who made complaints to HPD about housing maintenance problems didn’t get inspections. Without an inspection, violations aren’t verified by HPD and landlords aren’t forced to make repairs.
Even though 61% of tenants went through the winter with no heat sometimes for over a month, 31% of the time, HPD never sent an inspector to check on their heat and hot water. Tenants argue that HPD is not responding adequately to the biggest maintenance problems facing their communities.
Tenants state that the Emergency Repair Program – HPD’s program to address the most severe housing conditions – is failing residents most in need. When landlords do not repair emergency conditions, HPD has the power and the budget to make emergency repairs and send landlords the bill, but in 78% of the cases HPD failed to use the program to correct the urgent issue.
A quarter of tenants said that their maintenance problem was never solved despite their calls to 311. MJB argues that many of those tenants will likely never again turn to HPD to enforce the law and ensure their landlords follow the law.
Tenants are concerned that despite New York City’s rules about language access for non-English speakers, HPD has a serious language access problem. For emergency violations, when respondents received written notification from HPD about violations, 31% of the time it was not written in the language of the respondents. If tenants can’t read notifications, MJB argues that they won’t understand important next steps in the enforcement process.
These tenants contend that they have uncovered many serious problems with HPD’s performance through their participatory research study. MJB held a series of town hall meetings to discuss and arrive at community-generated solutions to these problems.
Based on their findings these tenants point to a failure of oversight of HPD. HPD oversees landlords, but these tenants ask, “who is truly overseeing HPD?” They argue that the evidence demonstrates that none of the measures and watchdogs currently in place is working.
Tenants are calling for the creation of an Independent Citywide HPD Oversight Commission with the power to investigate HPD and to make sure that HPD carries out their responsibilities of enforcing the maintenance code and preserving affordable housing.
To address the lack of information about HPD’s role in addressing housing maintenance issues and its contribution to displacement, they call for HPD to mount a citywide public education initiative about HPD’s responsibility to preserve affordable housing and the 311 hotline in El Barrio and similar neighborhoods in all 5 boroughs.
For all immediate emergencies, especially no heat and hot water in the winter, MJB calls for HPD to improve their response by: sending inspectors within 24 hours, requiring landlords to repair emergency condition within 24 hours of notification, fining landlords if that isn’t done, and fulfilling the responsibility of the Emergency Repair Program by using the Emergency Repair budget to repair conditions and bill landlords.
MJB is also calling for the establishment of an administrative tribunal to assess and collect fines for Code violations in order to more efficiently fine landlords and provide repercussions for landlords who do not make repairs.
Finally, MJB members are calling on Mayor de Blasio to take strong action in favor of preserving rent-regulated housing. The Mayor’s 10-year 5-Borough Housing Plan makes mention of preserving rent-regulated affordable housing, stating that “rent-stabilized apartments are a critical component of the City’s affordable housing stock.” These tenants complain they have seen an emphasis on development of new housing with no similar efforts at preserving rent-regulated housing where tenants are threatened with displacement. For these reasons and backed up by their data, they call on the Mayor to preserve New York City’s fast-disappearing rent-regulated housing and to make the recommended systemic changes at HPD.
"Rent Wars of East Harlem: It Takes a Village to Raise Hell" by Andalusia Knoll