PFI Bulletin:

HPD Commissioner Takes Issue With Hevesi/Leichter Study

The page 3 article in the July, 1995 edition of the People's Firehouse Bulletin ("HPD Fails to Act on Code Violations") was based on an unfair and misleading press release issued by New York City Comptroller Hevesi and State Senator Leichter regarding the Department of Housing Preservation and Development's code enforcement efforts. In particular, this press release accuses the Department of undermining enforcement of the housing maintenance code against landlords and of discriminating against neighborhoods in upper Manhattan by performing fewer reinspections there than in middle and lower Manhattan.

We strongly object to charges of discrimination by HPD against poor neighborhoods. The breadth of our city-wide code enforcement program is unmatched by any other city in the nation. Nevertheless, we are the first to agree that the system we inherited is not perfect, and for our part, are working hard to make it more effective.

By selectively focusing on the narrow issue of reinspection rates, the press release fundamentally distorts our record. The nerve system of our entire system--the Central Complaint Bureau--accepted over 276,000 calls last year from throughout the City, and is located on 125th Street in Central Harlem. It employs 121 workers, many of whom live in the community. Seventy six percent of the emergency repair orders in Manhattan and a full two-thirds of the code violations in Manhattan in 1994 were written for buildings in Northern Manhattan. Over 50% of all 1994 inspections conducted by HPD inspectors in Manhattan were made in Harlem or Washington Heights--the two communities allegedly ignored by HPD inspectors! Finally, over 65% of the pending Manhattan cases of the Department's Housing Litigation Bureau are in connection with buildings located in Community Districts 9, 10, 11 or 12. This is hardly a record of discrimination.

Despite the Department's tremendous investment in these poor communities and others, more must be done. This fall we will launch our new Neighborhood Preservation Consultant Program which will enlist the help of locally based not-for-profit organizations to target and improve the effectiveness of our code enforcement activities in their neighborhoods. During the summer months we are conducting inspections of boilers in buildings that had heat or hot water violations last winter in an effort to head off such problems in advance. Our new head of code enforcement is currently analyzing potential improvements in operations, particularly through automation.

Nevertheless, these initiatives need to be accompanied by fundamental changes in the City's code enforcement system--many of which require state or city legislation. The number of inspectors was reduced from more than 425 in 1991 to fewer than 200 today due in large part to a loss in state funds. Even worse, currently laws require the City to initiate litigation in Housing Court in order to collect one cent of the penalties payable by landlords. The Department has repeatedly proposed legislation to address this inefficient and resource-intensive approach to code enforcement. However, this legislation has never been passed; in fact both the City Comptroller and Sen. Leichter were members of the Legislature when it rejected these reforms and reduced by $8 million the funds for New York City's code enforcement system.

Within the constraints imposed by the budget and existing laws (which permit the self-certification procedures criticized in the press release), HPD has made many positive achievements that are overlooked by simply focusing on reinspection. Discretionary reinspection represented less than 5% of fiscal year 1994's 145,000 field inspections. This narrow and misleading approach inexplicably ignores, among other things, our enormously successful emergency response system. Some 60% of calls to our Central Complaint Bureau are heat or hot water problems, while the other 40% are maintenance or repair complaints. Unlike in any other major US city, an immediately hazardous condition is referred to our Emergency Services Bureau, which follows up to ensure that if the landlord does not make the necessary correction, HPD will. HPD's Housing Litigation Bureau is the other primary means of responding to code violations, and it addresses some 50,000 violations per year.

This fall HPD will once again propose corrective legislation to reform the existing enforcement mechanism. Perhaps the City Comptroller and Sen. Leichter will redirect their energies away from attacking HPD and towards assisting the City in improving conditions for tenants by getting these reforms enacted at last.

Deborah C. Wright is Commissioner of Department of Housing Preservation and development of the City of New York.