FINDING ONE THREE YEARS AFTER ITS TAKEOVER OF THE RENT REGULATORY SYSTEM, DHCR IS AN AGENCY IN CHAOS, UNABLE TO ANSWER ITS PHONES. RESPOND TO MAIL. ENSURE THAT DOCUMENTS AND FILES SENT TO DHCR ARE NOT LOST OR PROVIDE BASIC. ACCURATE FACTUAL INFORMATION TO ITS USER COMMUNITY. The vital services which tenants and landlords need from DHCR depend upon efficient communication with the agency. Without such communication, the administration of the rent regulatory system is doomed to failure. Precisely such a failure has occurred at DHCR. The failure of DHCR to perform basic communications functions has effectively denied important legal rights and protections to a large-segment of the Division's user community and made dealing with DHCR a Kafkaesque nightmare for both tenants and owners alike. Communications in Chaos Testimony submitted by a wide variety of witnesses indicated that DHCR's telephones are often either not answered or are constantly busy. It took staff from the Assembly Oversight Committee, for example, 75 rings to get through to the main DHCR information number in Jamaica, Queens. DHCR rent examiner David Saphire testified that in his office, where 25 rent examiners process cases, all of the phones except one were recently removed. The phone jacks were left in place, however, and tenants were never informed that the numbers they had been given were no longer in service. The result is that callers hear endless ringing on disconnected phone jacks. Testimony received by the committees documented the fact that when tenants and owners are able to reach DHCR, they often are given incorrect information. In a survey conducted by the Assembly Oversight Committee in which staff attempted to call each of DHCR's nine offices and ask, at different times, three basic factual questions about tenants' rights, DHCR gave out incorrect information or was simply not reachable by phone two- thirds of the time. As Legal Services Attorney Russell Engler testified: "With respect to information by telephone, DHCR supposedly has a public information number. The success in using this number is revealed from the notes of one of the paralegals in my office: 'Call number one, it rang so often I gave up. Call number two, I gave up. Call number three, I started to count rings. It rang five times, then I got a recorded message, then it rang forty-two times before someone answered. I should add that no useful information was provided once the telephone was answered." Efforts to communicate in writing with DHCR yield equally unsatisfactory results. Testimony received at the hearing supports the conclusion that DHCR simply ignores much of the correspondence sent to the agency. A former DHCR employee told staff of the Housing Committee that while working for DHCR he had been given a box of two-year-old mail to answer. Lost in the Shuffle Many witnesses submitted testimony which indicated that DHCR routinely loses important evidence and documents sent in by tenants and owners and, in some cases, entire case files. The Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord trade group, found that of one thousand complaints received from its members about their dealings with DHCR, five hundred complaints documented cases where the Division had lost documents or evidence submitted by owners. Lost files are so commonplace at DHCR that the agency has developed a widely-used form letter to tenants and owners on the subject. As Ken Fishel, the representative of a real estate company, wrote: "Since DHCR has taken over, the paperwork within our office has tripled. When we file an answer to a tenant's complaint, we must always refile the same answer at least once. DHCR almost always loses the original papers." Some tenants and owners testified that mail sent to DHCR for which they had proof of mailing or their entire case files had been lost more than once by the agency. Tenant Louise Gubert described what happened to an overcharge complaint she filed: "I periodically would call the DHCR to see how my claim was progressing. I also wrote letters to the DHCR informing them of changes in my case, such as when new landlords bought the building, et cetera. (I have had three landlords.) A year ago I made yet another pilgrimage to 10 Columbus Circle. At that time I was told that my claim was lost and I might consider dropping the claim or make copies of my own files and resubmit the forms in order to reconstruct my file, which I did." Ms. Gubert resubmitted her claim and when she went to DHCR's office six months later to check on its status: "I was told not only could they not find my file (the one I resubmitted), but that it was not in the computer. To add to the confusion, one of my neighbors in past requests to the DHCR when inquiring about their claim, received a referenced docket number which happened to have been my docket number. Another time a tenant received a notice from DHCR which included papers for a tenant living on the East Side, it had nothing to do with her claim. ... When I write I send everything return receipt requested so I know my correspondence is received but it is almost never acknowledged. It seems whatever form of communication used, whether it be the telephone, letter or in person, it is ineffective to receive information or help from the DHCR." Rent examiner David Saphire testified that he often received documents for the first time from tenants and landlords accompanied by terse statements that the information enclosed had already been sent to DHCR. DHCR officials could offer no explanation for the pervasive cases of lost mail, documents and files at the agency. Testimony indicated that because DHCR has moved its rent administration offices fourteen separate times over the last three years, forms regularly are sent out with incorrect return addresses reflecting prior DHCR locations. As Barbara Craebel, the owner of two buildings in Manhattan, summed up the situation: "To obtain accurate information from the DHCR files on any subject is all but impossible. I have sought information by letter, telephone, never honored, and even by personal visit to the DHCR office in Queens, an all-day trip for me. Still nothing happens. Documents that owners are required to file disappear into the DHCR without a trace. Months or years later, DHCR sends an anonymous letter requesting information already submitted or advises that information previously filed doesn't exist. There appears to be no way to resolve these problems except to file documents over and over in the hope that DHCR will get it straight someday." Effects of DHCR Disarray DHCR's failure to perform basic communications functions causes more than frustration and inconvenience for its user community. Tenants and owners who get incorrect information from DHCR and then use that information in making decisions about their homes and businesses suffer real-life consequences because of the agency's errors. Tenants who are given wrong information about their right to continue living in their apartment, for example, may risk eviction by following the Division's advice. Conversely, landlords who follow inaccurate DHCR information risk being held liable, by DHCR or the courts, for violating the provisions of the rent regulatory laws. Lost letters, documents and files cause even more serious problems for tenants and owners. The case processing system at DHCR is essentially a paper flow where each party's contention in a complaint is matched with an answer from the opposing party. If a tenant or owner does not answer a DHCR request, or in some cases several DHCR requests for a response to a contention made by an opposing party, a case is closed using only the information already in the file. In theory, this is an equitable way to resolve cases. In practice, however, where an owner may answer a complaint made by a tenant one or two times and have each response lost by DHCR (apparently a relatively common occurrence judging from the testimony submitted to the committees), this method of closing cases may result in gross unfairness and the denial of important legal rights. Thus, if a tenant claims an overcharge has occurred and the rent examiner has, after repeated requests, not received any rebuttal from the landlord, the case will be decided in favor of the tenant because of the landlord's failure to answer the complaint. The landlord will be ordered to refund rent and may be assessed treble damages. If the response sent by the landlord is sitting in a different DHCR office, or has been lost or is sitting in a box of unopened mail, DHCR's attitude, as reflected by testimony received by the committees, seems to be that persons who are victimized by processing errors can always file an appeal assuming they have the strength, after waiting sometimes for years to have their original complaint resolved, to continue down the road of DHCR's case-processing system. Multiple Errors. Procedures Designed for Failure Judging from the testimony and letters received by the committees, it appears that many tenants and owners experience more than one DHCR "inefficiency" in their case processing. Thus, tenants may begin their DHCR experience with unanswered phone calls, proceed to wrong information, then send letters that go unanswered and finally have their entire case file lost. The errors are compounded by routine practices which seem designed to cause further problems. For example, the form which allows tenants to challenge the information provided by an owner in annual rent registrations contains no space for the tenant to note the address of the owner. DHCR personnel, because of the difficulties they experience in using DHCR's own rent registration data base, often cannot determine the owner's address themselves so they must send a new form to the tenant asking the tenant to provide the owner's address. If a tenant fails to respond to DHCR requests for an owner's address or DHCR loses the tenant's response, the case may be closed on that basis. This entire paper flow could be eliminated by simply asking tenants to note the owner's address in the first place. For those with sophistication, time and money, dealing with DHCR can mean years of appeals and finally court actions to try to correct the errors made by the Division. For those without such resources, which includes many small owners and the vast majority of tenants, the rights guaranteed by law are simply lost when DHCR fails to properly administer them. As Jane Benedict of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant advocacy organization, testified: "It is utterly hopeless for the poor, unless they are organized through some organization even to contemplate doing anything through the administrative procedures and when the administrative procedures are what we have seen here today, then I assure you we're talking about two different worlds. We're talking about a world where people are totally disinherited." The Multi-Year Wait For Case Resolution Large numbers of tenants who filed overcharge cases have had to wait years for a resolution. Rent examiner Elliot Vizansky testified that he had recently been given cases to process for the first time which tenants filed in 1981. The waiting time can be particularly frustrating and may contribute to tenants and owners being denied important legal rights for two reasons. First, DHCR initiates no communication about a case to the complaining party until case-processing is begun. Thus, tenants and owners may typically receive a docket number upon filing their case and then hear nothing more for a very long period of time. The next communication, which may be years later, will sometimes be a notice which informs parties in the case that unless certain information is provided within 21 days, the case will be closed using only the information already in the file. In many cases, more than one notice will be sent before a case is closed using only already existing information. If the tenant or owner has moved or is on vacation, or if the information request sent by DHCR or the response sent by the owner or tenant is lost, the case may be closed without waiting for additional information. In cases where a tenant or owner has important evidence which would affect a case, the price for failing to respond to such notices or having such responses lost by DHCR can be very high. Owners who have multiple overcharge claims filed against them may have a particularly difficult time in quickly responding years later to 21-day notices. (Until the spring of 1986, notices were also sent out which allowed parties only ten days to answer. That policy has subsequently been changed.) A second source of tremendous difficulty in the multi-year waiting period is that it is impossible for tenants or owners to find out, either by phone or mail, the status of their pending cases, other than whether the case is open or closed and whether the case has been assigned to a rent examiner. From the testimony, it appears that correspondence sent by tenants and owners inquiring about case status is often simply not answered. If an inquiry is answered, the response is likely to be that the case has been "assigned to a rent examiner." Phone inquiries produce no better results, even when made by public officials. New York City Councilman Robert Dryfoos testified about one case handled by his office: "I would like to share with you the experience the head of my constituent unit had when seeking information on the status of a rent overcharge case filed in March 1984, to which the tenant had not received a determination and subsequently turned to me for help in July 1986. Attempting to gain information on the case in question, my staff had 24 phone conversations with seven individuals from three different offices over a period of twelve days, at the end of which we knew no more regarding the status of the case than we did when we began." Tenants and owners may be able to obtain more information by personally examining their case files. But this usually involves at least two trips to DHCR's Central Office in Jamaica, Queens. On the first visit, the party is asked to fill out a form requesting to see his case file. On the second trip, the files sometimes will be made available. As one owner, Richard Albert. testified: "I found an engineering student on summer vacation. I said hey, you're not working this summer, go up to DHCR and here is a list of all the outstanding rent reduction orders I have and see if you can get information on them. He spent weeks out of the summer. Here's the report he has, it's signed by him. You want to know something? On half of them they couldn't even find the file. The other half where they found the file, it was completely inaccurate information. At least they found half." Hundreds of Thousands of Cases -- Processed By Hand Part of the reason for the tremendous disarray of the rent regulation program is the fact that it is essentially a manual system. Cases and orders are scattered in thousands of file cabinets located everywhere from Jamaica, Queens to a storage warehouse in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Boxes of mail sit in various locations -- much of it doomed to be eventually lost in the sprawling DHCR case-processing system. And tenants and owners who must somehow make their way through the chaos to keep their homes and businesses often find only frustration and despair. An Internal DHCR Automation Study, completed in December of 1985, one and a half years after the State's takeover of the rent regulation program, concluded that: "The Office of Rent Administration provides its principals with few automated tools. A handful of stand-alone personal computers, most of which are underutilized, are scattered throughout the organization. Existing word-processing equipment is insufficient to meet the needs of the user community. The creation, storage, retrieval, and transmission of information is accomplished by means of various manual procedures." The study further noted that at the time it was done, DHCR had only five word processors, ten personal computers and fourteen 3270 CRT terminals to do the processing work of the entire rent administration program. The agency now is in the process of installing the automation system recommended in its 1985 report. DHCR developed a takeover plan in August of 1983, seven months prior to the agency's assumption of the administration of rent stabilization and rent control. The plan recommended, among other things, that a comprehensive evaluation of the agency's automation needs be conducted. The transition plan developed by DHCR staff was never implemented, however, with the result that no automation study was conducted either prior to or in the first year of DHCR's administration of the rent regulation system. Instead, DHCR requested and was granted authorization to purchase $1 million of computer equipment in March of 1985 without any comprehensive analysis of the Division's automation needs. During the spring of 1985, Commissioner William Eimicke's staff and the Governor's office recommended that the new computer system which had just been purchased not be utilized.* According to the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review (LCER), which analyzed the Division's takeover of the rent system in a 1986 memorandum report, the "verbal recommendation" of DHCR and administration staff to not utilize the newly purchased computer equipment "was accepted by the new DHCR Commissioner without written documentation of specific problems with the ordered computer system." The Office of General Services attempted to halt delivery of the new equipment but was unsuccessful and the vendor was paid $1,001,846 by the State in August of 1985. Three months later, DHCR sold about half the system to the State Insurance Department. By the time of the completion of the LCER's analysis in July of 1986, the other half of the system, valued at more than half a million dollars, was still sitting in storage at DHCR. The Division today still does not have a fully functioning computer network in place and the impact on the Division's ability to efficiently process cases has been substantial. The primary cause of DHCR's failure to automate, according to the LCER, is that the Administration and the division never implemented the detailed computer evaluation plan which had been recommended by DHCR staff in 1983. DHCR -- Where Are You? Since assuming administration of the rent stabilization system, as noted earlier, DHCR has moved its own offices 14 separate times. Based upon the testimony submitted to the committees, it is clear that these dislocations have contributed to the disarray of the system and have made DHCR's troubled administration worse. Unlike many other state agencies which have relocated, the Division never undertook any effective campaigns to inform the public of which offices moved, where tenants, owners or legislators should go to obtain various services or get information, or what plans were in the works for moves in the future. Case-processing is now largely centralized in Jamaica Queens, a location which is extremely difficult to reach for most tenants and owners and most present and potential employees. The case backlog, however, continues to be processed at 10 Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The Commissioner's and Deputy Commissioner's offices are located at Fordham Plaza in the Bronx, physically separated from the employees who do the case-processing work. DHCR has satellite offices in each county where it administers rent regulation laws. In the 1983 Omnibus Housing Act, the legislature mandated the creation of these local District Rent Administration Offices and intended that tenants and owners receive the bulk of the services they needed from DHCR at locations convenient to their homes and businesses. In practice, however, these district offices supply only very limited public information services and copies of forms. Tenants and owners must travel from White Plains, Staten Island and every other location in the New York metropolitan area to Jamaica, Queens to obtain most services. Maria Mottola, coordinator of Community Organizing Programs at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association, a not-for-profit settlement house in Manhattan, summed up some of the difficulties her organization experienced in dealing with the Division's moves: "DHCR's organizational structure is a mystery. It is difficult to learn which unit is responsible for specific types of cases, ... or names of supervisory personnel. We have been unable to keep up with DHCR's whereabouts. DHCR has provided no prior or timely notification of moves, changes of address or telephone numbers, and we question why the agency that is supposed to service tenants is unable to let people know which offices are moving and what function these offices will have. The function of the District Rent Offices is unclear. We are told that they are still operational, and yet when inquiries are made to the Manhattan office, we are told they will not give information over the phone and that we must call the general information number in Jamaica. Trips to the District Rent Office by tenants also prove futile. Tenants who need status reports on their complaints are told that they must go to Jamaica as that's where the files are." DHCR claims, with some justification, that the problems caused by their many office moves and the continuing difficulty that tenants, owners and employees experience in traveling to the Jamaica location is not entirely their fault. Much of the blame in fact lies with the Administration, which was unable to permanently locate DHCR for almost two years. The seeming end to the Division's moves has not eliminated the difficulties tenants and owners experience in finding personnel at DHCR. As Oda Friedheim of the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers, a coalition of non-profit locally based housing organizations, testified: "Nobody knows who exactly does what at DHCR. Many other agencies do have a departmental chart, at least, to sort of indicate who's the head of what unit, how many people are in a unit, etc. Even HPD has that. Well, DHCR is a complete mystery, who works where and who is responsible about what and who is reporting to whom." The Small Building Owners' Assistance Unit -- Fact or Fiction? Among the most difficult offices to get in touch with at DHCR is the unit charged with assisting small building owners. The Omnibus Housing Act of 1983 required DHCR to establish a Small Building Owners' Assistance Unit to help small owners comply with the requirements of the rent stabilization and rent control laws. The Legislature envisioned, and owner groups understood, that the Small Building Owners' Unit would be a separate entity within the Division whose sole function would be to assist small landlords in dealing with the rent regulatory system. In reality, as the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review noted: "DHCR does not have a separate small building owners' unit. Instead, this function is handled by public information specialists at the six district rent offices, at the Gertz building and through the telephone hotline for owners. Information and advice is available to owners and tenants alike." The lack of this unit has caused difficulties for small building owners and owner group representatives who feel the complexities of the rent regulation system necessitate the services of counselors who are trained to handle and deal exclusively with small building owners. The absence of the unit has also caused confusion among owners and legislators, most of whom have naively assumed that DHCR complied with the Omnibus Housing Act's clear mandate that a Small Building Owners' Unit be established. As one owner testified: "On many occasions, I have attempted to reach the Small Building Owners' Assistance Unit. I have never been able to find out where it is located or reach it on the telephone. I would be very interested in knowing where it is and what it does." In the course of the investigation, we did not come across a single owner or owner representative who was aware of the existence of a Small Building Owners' Assistance Unit. The Division, however, steadfastly maintains that such a unit does in fact exist, (although they say there is no one at DHCR who is in charge of directing it), as in the following exchange between Assemblyman Grannis and Commissioner Eimicke, testifying under oath: Assemblyman Grannis: The Omnibus Housing Act required the Division to set up a Small Building Owners' Assistance Unit. Does that unit exist in the Division of Housing today? Commissioner Eimicke: Indeed it does, and they have handled over 300,000 complaints since the system was put into place, approximately 100,000, I believe, walk-in interviews as well. Assemblyman Grannis: You're saying that there is a separate unit within the Department. Commissioner, your testimony in our budget hearings (was that) an entire unit (was) separately established to deal with the problems of small owners. Is that, in fact, the case? Commissioner Eimicke: Yes. If a Small Building Owners' Assistance Unit has been established but no one knows about it, does it exist? The resolution to that riddle, at least in the minds of DHCR, is apparently yes. Thousands of small owners do not believe this, however, and are still searching for the answers to their questions. ---------- * Eimicke held the position of Deputy Secretary to the Governor in charge of overseeing all of the operations of DHCR and other state housing agencies until 1985. In June of that year, he was given the formal position of "Director of Housing" and also appointed DHCR Commissioner, replacing Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich.