The Big Chill

Will HPD staff cuts freeze tenants out this winter?

While meteorologists are forecasting a colder and stormier winter than New York has seen in a few years, some city housing employees are predicting that the weather could com pound problems for tenants. Attorneys at the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) have warned their bosses that they are already dangerously under staffed, and that a severe winter could be disastrous if there aren't enough attorneys to prosecute landlords who fail to provide heat and hot water.

"We could be dead wrong, and I honestly hope that come spring, management can laugh at us," says Abbott Gorin, a veteran HPD attorney and administrator of the Civil Service Bar Association, the union that represents his coworkers. "But the fact is that there are not enough attorneys here to properly do the job for this heat season. We're in crisis."

Budget cuts, attrition, and HPD's apparent disinterest in enforcing the city's housing code have left the agency's litigation bureau with only 18 attorneys to haul recalcitrant landlords into court—less than a quarter of the 80 attorneys on staff when the bureau was at an all-time high eight years ago. The 18 handle not only owners who ingore heat-and-hot-water laws, but those who snub all sorts of other housing codes. In winter, half a dozen attorneys from another HPD division pitch in with heat cases, but the staffing remains pal try. HPD commissioner Richard Roberts last week told a City Council panel that he will hire temporary attorneys for the heat season, but did not say when or how many.

In September, bar association chair Gloria Johnson warned Roberts that the litigation bureau's "readiness to safeguard the health and well-being of New York's tenants for the upcoming heat-and-hot-water season has been severely compromised." Roberts issued a statement saying that despite staff losses, HPD attorneys continue to litigate; last winter, they brought about 1100 heat and hot water cases. Primarily, however, HPD attorneys assist ten ants who are suing landlords for other poor conditions.

At an October 26 labor-management meeting, HPD attorneys described staffing levels as "dangerously low," and said that HPD was flirting with disaster. One longtime HPD litigator warned that without rigorous enforcement, tenants might die of hypothermia. Management argued that the weather—not staffing levels—would determine how many heat cases were brought, and HPD counsel Bernard Schwarz pointed out that staff had been cut agency-wide. Johnson says that although Schwarz "promised he would get back to us" by Veterans Day to say if HPD could commit to adding attorneys, she has not heard from him. Schwarz did not return calls for this story.

The attorney shortage undermines HPD's efforts to ensure that the city's housing stock is safe and decent. "Inspectors come around, but they merely place violations, which a land lord can pretty easily ignore," says Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. "No one will force a landlord to provide heat and hot water or pay a fine unless a litigator takes him to court where they can get higher fines or even jail."

Even Joe Corso, president of the Allied Building Inspectors union, says he'd trade a huge influx of inspectors for a decently staffed litigation bureau. "It's hard for inspectors who keep going back to a building and find out that the agency is not following up," says Corso. "Half the time the inspector just feels embarrassed. Even if we had 500 inspectors and no attorneys, what are we doing? We don't want to just produce paperwork."

HPD has nowhere near 500 inspectors; in fact, there are 243 inspectors on board—about half the force, sources say, necessary to do a reasonable job. Last year, they completed 134,776 inspections (another 42,000 were at tempted); of the 230,080 complaints that came to HPD, 135,078 were about heat and hot water. Even with last week's budget deal between the City Council and the mayor, which added money for 78 or so new inspectors, the staffing falls short.

As for attorneys, Gorin argues that HPD litigators—who start at about $38,000—essentially pay for themselves by winning and collecting judgments against landlords, which go to the city's general fund.

Indeed, the shortage of both inspectors and attorneys begs a question: What does the HPD deem important, if not enforcing the housing code? "I know this sounds paranoid, but I think they just want to be able to say they're getting rid of violations, so they don't want to cite landlords for any more," says Ann Pasmanick of the Community Training and Resource Center, which runs a class for land lords of small buildings with first-time heat violations. "I know Roberts has said they can do what they need to without more attorneys, but it's just not realistic."

Under Giuliani, HPD's focus has been returning buildings to private landlords and preventing abandonment, turning the agency into something of a realty firm staffed with brokers eager to make deals and reduce inventory. The message to landlords, critics say, is that the housing code can be ignored with impunity.

Meanwhile, tenants bear the brunt, since even a quickly dispatched inspector cannot force a landlord to turn on the heat. Options are dire: tenants can shiver in wickedly cold apartments, or improvise. Many try to warm their homes by blasting ovens and burners. Pasmanick recalled Brooklyn tenants who bought their own gas heaters and became sick when they ran them without ventilation. Corso says some tenants hook electric heaters up to multiple extension cords, sometimes running wiring to outlets outside the apartments.

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