Enough Unhealthy Housing
Michelle Menthe, a community health outreach worker and longtime Bushwick resident, has lived with her family without heat for the past two winters. Their windows in her apartment are broken. There is no electricity in most of the building. There is no security because the front door and the door to the roof are both broken. There have been three fires in the basement this year started by people who come in and out of the building to use drugs. Strangers come into their building at will because the entrance doors are broken and have no locks. Michelle fears for her four young children because the banister of the building's stairway is broken. Unfortunately, Michelle, like many renters in New York City, struggles to pay her rent. Despite horrific housing conditions, she cannot afford to move.
Michelle is not alone. Half of all New York City renters now pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent. And two-thirds of the poorest one-fourth of New York City's renters pay more than 40% of their incomes in rent. Michelle's income has simply made it impossible to find another apartment that she can afford.
Another sad, unacceptable story: Maria Quintanilla has lived without a shower for sixteen years. Her apartment has major infestations of bedbugs and mice. When she asked her landlord to fumigate, he told her to make a bedbug taco and eat it. Maria, like Michelle, cannot afford to move.
Michelle, Maria and their families, along with thousands of other families in New York City, will benefit enormously from a legislative initiative called the Safe Housing Act. This legislation was recently introduced into the City Council by Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Council Member Letitia James of Brooklyn. The bill was praised by both the Bloomberg Administration and the landlord lobby. Nonetheless, the Safe Housing Act is still far from law. There will be multiple public hearings on the legislation, and a vote by the full City Council. Until the legislation is passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Bloomberg, there is danger that the strong coalition of supporters will fall apart, or others will try to damage the bill's chances of passing.
In recent years, housing conditions in New York City have been getting worse. According to the Furman Center, the number of serious code violations per 1,000 rental units in New York City increased by over fifty percent in just four years. In 2002, there were thirty-eight serious violations per 1000 rental units. In 2006, that figure skyrocketed by over 50%, to fifty-eight serious violations per 1000 rental units.
Bushwick, Brooklyn, where I have worked at Make the Road by Walking, a membership organization that organizes around housing issues and provides free legal services to tenants, has had the highest number of serious violations for the past ten years. There are an astounding 297 violations per 1,000 rental units. The number of dangerous apartments has close to doubled since 2002.
The Safe Housing Act will fix close to 2000 apartments annually by targeting the 200 worst buildings throughout New York City every year. Buildings will be identified by two major indicators of distress: high numbers of hazardous housing code violations and a history of emergency repairs made by the City. The landlord of a targeted building is given four months to fix all housing code violations. They will also continue to receive daily fines for noncompliance with housing law. After four months, the City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will step in to force negligent landlords to quickly repair all outstanding violations or HPD will make comprehensive repairs themselves. HPD will also institute major new fines on negligent landlords, and they will charge the landlords for all of the city's work, and put a lien on all affected buildings.
The Safe Housing Act has been informed by the perspective of people who are usually left to the margins of public policy debates - low-income people of color and immigrants. It has been shaped by the lived experience of people have had to live without showers for years, or by people whose doors do not lock. She and her staff met regularly with tenant advocate and organizers almost weekly for a period of three months, and were in constant dialogue with both HPD and the landlord lobby.
Speaker Quinn deserves big credit for her work to bring tenants, advocates and the Bloomberg Administration to the table. The Safe Housing Act is tough, pro-tenant legislation. It simply would not have happened, though, without the Speaker's work to build consensus among all of the stakeholders.