'New' Mayor, Old Games

Rudy No Kinder, Gentler to Tenants

Rudy Giuliani credits his cancer for making him more humane. But perhaps the mayor's claimed reincarnation began even before his May diagnosis. In April, for instance, when he released his budget, he failed to take his usual mean-spirited swipe at libraries and cultural institutions. In years past, the mayor put such items under the knife, knowing full well that the City Council would restore them. But this year, Giuliani spared the bickering when he overturned his own financial plan and restored nearly $60 million to libraries and museums, including $17 million for the dung-displaying Brooklyn Museum of Art, a target of the mayor's ire just months ago.

Even so, the mayor's metamorphosis is obviously incomplete. Just take a look at his housing budget: It seems Giuliani just can't shake his bad habit of cutting at least a handful of programs that do a truckload of good and cost the municipal equivalent of anickel. Axed again this year in the mayor's budget is money for more housing inspectors; programs that help tenants avoid eviction and, failing that, aid them in housing court; education for landlords who have first-time heat violations; and money for city lawyers who prosecute landlords. In all, the cuts would save the city $6.6 million—chump change compared to the mayor's $37 billion budget and a predicted surplus of about $3 billion.

As usual, it's not likely that the mayor's proposed cuts will actually come to pass by the June 30 budget deadline. Like in years past, the council is expected to restore the programs (although inspectors and city lawyers may not actually be hired), and, after financial upheaval has visited the various nonprofits that run those programs, things will be back on track. So if cuts are ultimately restored, what's the problem?

"Each year it's a predictable but unnerving situation," says Sarah Desmond, executive director at the Housing Conservation Coordinator's office in Hell's Kitchen, which provides tenant counseling, organizing, and anti-eviction assistance. HCC is one of about 50 agencies citywide that gets money from the Community Consultant Contract, which costs $1 million a year and is headed, under Giuliani's plan, for the scrap yard. Desmond's operation would lose about $40,000.

Kevin Ryan's agency, the Community Training and Resource Center (CTRC), is also on the chopping block. "You have to go through a lot of trials to get the money, and small groups really suffer," says Ryan. "There are layoffs until the money comes in, and it just becomes a big headache."

More troublesome than bookkeeping and cash flow problems are the political consequences of the mayor's style. "The fact is that 98 percent of the budget is set even before the mayor and the council start negotiating," says one source who is steeped in budget negotiations. "If the mayor starts out with cuts to programs that he knows the council will restore, the council loses part of that play. It's a way a mayor has of keeping down initiatives by starting off with a hole."

Stephen DiBrienza, the Brooklyn council member, agrees that the mayor's political calculus stymies council efforts to come up with new legislation to deal with housing issues. "Restoring things that the mayor has cut every year is really not the most productive use of our time," he says. "This is a budget game where mayors in general, and this mayor in particular, cut out council priorities and create havoc so we have to restore them."

A key council initiative of the past has been adding money for additional housing inspectors at the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). As of February 2000, the number of inspectors had dropped to about 220, down from 279 when Giuliani took office and about 685 in the mid 1980s, when the city received state dollars to pay for inspectors. Those subsidies ended in 1992. Last year, the council allocated $2.6 million for new inspectors, and while that money made it into the budget, HPD is not obliged to hire. The same is true for HPD attorneys, whose numbers, once around 80, have fallen to less than 40, including attorneys who sue tenants in HPD-owned buildings, not just those who litigate against landlords who violate the city code.

In fact, one program that Giuliani's budget would cut is the Landlord Training Program, offered by Ryan's CTRC through HPD. Landlords who have a first-time violation for failing to provide heat can avoid fines by attending three sessions on heating and other building issues.

Begun in Brooklyn in 1996, the landlord training is now offered in four boroughs and trains about 200 landlords a year. Of the more than 500 who have attended classes so far, Ryan says only one has been cited with an additional heat violation.

That means tenants in 499 buildings who might have been without heat were, infact, warm. The dollars Giuliani saves by slashing the training: under $200,000 a year.

 
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