COMPTROLLER OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
1 CENTRE STREET
NEW YORK, NY 10007-2341
ALAN G. HEVESI
February 23, 1995
Deborah C. Wright
Department of Housing Preservation and Development
City of New York
100 Gold Street
New York, NY 10038
Dear Commissioner Wright:
We are disappointed that you have not accepted our recommendation that firm action needs to be taken to dissuade landlords from falsely certifying the correction of housing-code violations in Notices of Violations (NOV). In view of your Department's reluctance to seek criminal penalties for landlord miscertifications, we have decided to refer those miscertifications uncovered during our research directly to the New York County District Attorney, Honorable Robert M. Morgenthau.
Your letter does not dispute the findings of our survey: that approximately 40% of landlord certifications are false, that roughly 40,000 violations annually are incorrectly stricken from HPD's records, and that literally tens of thousands of tenants could unnecessarily be living in dangerous apartments as a result of phony certifications. Further, you do not deny that your Department has failed to seek fines specifically for miscertifications and that miscertifications represent an enormous waste of HPD inspections staff. Finally, your letter ignores our suggestion that sanctioning at least some landlords for false certifications would send a strong message to recalcitrant landlords.
Your letter makes the self-evident case that HPD's resources have been drastically cut in recent years. This would support our contention that at least some landlords should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We are not advocating a wholesale shift of HPD resources. Simply stated, your staff should protect your inspection results from being improperly removed.
We would like to respond to some of the statements you make in your letter. To begin with, you state that State legislative passage of the Administrative Tribunal bill would strengthen housing code enforcement. You fail to mention that this legislation has been unsuccessful in the State Assembly for each of the past ten years. According to the staff of Assembly Member Pete Grannis, the bill's sponsoring Member, landlord groups and tenant advocates strongly oppose the measure. The chances of eventual passage, according to the Grannis staff, are virtually nil. Thus, waiting for help from the Tribunal bill instead of attempting to take action now against landlords misrepresenting themselves to HPD seems mistaken.
Likewise, your letter refers to legislation HPD offered last year to the City Council to increase fines for miscertifications and to increase the reinspection period. Our staff's conversations with City Council staff in both the Housing Committee and the Finance Committee were unable to uncover any such legislation being offered. The Committee staffs were similarly unaware of HPD's position on increased fines and reinspection periods. HPD's liaison to the Council told our staff that the legislation was introduced three years ago, was called Intro. 340, but had not been reintroduced since. He said that he thought that the legislation had been offered by Council Member Eldridge, and not at HPD's request. Further, he said he did not know whether HPD would support the legislation. Yet, assuming the legislation were offered with HPD's support, the Council would be correct to ask HPD why fines should be raised if HPD is not even seeking fines at the current level. HPD would be unable to make the case that the current fine amount is too low to dissuade false certifications.
Your letter makes the contention that HPD "opened" 10,468 Housing Court cases in FY 94. What your letter fails to note is that roughly 8,400 of these cases were not HPD-initiated, but tenant-initiated. HPD is a defendant in tenant-initiated cases and is forced by law to respond. In fact, HPD initiated only 390 so-called comprehensive cases and 1,649 heat cases in FY 94.
While we applaud your Department's move toward annual landlord registration, we take issue with your statement on the current number of undeliverable Notices of Violations being "relatively small." In fact, as our letter notes, Comptroller and State Senate staff saw at least a dozen boxes of returned NOVs in the Brooklyn HPD office alone. More undeliverable NOVs are still coming to the office. The inspection and clerical staff there did not know the number of addressee-unknown NOVs, but agreed that it was in the tens of thousands.
Finally, your letter takes issue with our contention that allowing a certification after two unsuccessful inspection attempts invites landlord fraud. Your letter notes that inspectors in fact leave a card announcing their next inspection visit. Your letter fails to state why a landlord would have any incentive to appear for the inspection. If he knows when the inspector is coming, he can just stay away. Without an inspection, the certification will automatically be accepted and the code violations will be removed from the City's record. Moreover, you contend that "[i]n most cases, access is denied [for the inspection] by the tenant..." This statement simply flies in the face of common sense, and this problem never surfaced in any of our staffs' interviews with HPD's litigation office or with the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Bronx HPD field offices. As well, HPD has a procedure for what the Department refers to as the "double no-access" problem, to protect landlords in such situations by automatically eliminating violations via a Form CV-1.
In sum, we are troubled by your letter. We remain committed to ending this landlord fraud. We have initiated contact with a local law enforcement agency and have forwarded hundreds of cases of landlord miscertifications. We will keep you apprised of developments.
Alan G. Hevesi
Franz S. Leichter