A City Council hearing on the deadly Twin Parks fire was a grim reminder that the city agency entrusted to protect tenants is severely understaffed and underfunded.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development was on the receiving end of much of the criticism leveled by members who wanted answers about the agency’s housing-code inspections, enforcement process and fine collection.
Legislation aimed at preventing another fire like the Bronx high-rise blaze that killed 17 people in January could come up for a vote this month. But proposed budget cuts and a staffing crisis at the agency may make it difficult to enact any new requirements.
Lawmakers expressed frustration with what they saw as the reluctance of housing officials to acknowledge the budget constraints directly.
“I just wish you would say, ‘No, we don’t proactively go out to buildings, because we don’t have enough resources,’” Council Member Eric Dinowitz (D-Bronx) told Deputy Commissioner of Enforcement AnnMarie Santiago. “I think that would just be a more honest and appropriate answer if that’s the case. Because we are here to keep people safe.”
Oswald Feliz, a Democrat who represents the central Bronx district where the Twin Parks North West fire occurred and leads the Task Force on Fire Prevention, called for HPD to take a more proactive approach to inspections. The department needs to improve how it follows up with landlords who certify that repairs for things like self-closing doors have been completed, he said.
“We cannot allow another Twin Parks tragedy to occur anywhere in the city of New York,” Feliz said. “We have to create a system that will not allow any room for any error when it comes to self-closing door violations.”
Defective doors allowed smoke to inundate the 19-story, 120-unit building after a space heater caught fire in a duplex on the second and third floors at 333 E. 181st St. Smoke inhalation, blamed for all of the deaths, sent 46 others to the hospital.
Feliz proposed legislation to clearly define the term “self-closing door” and require re-inspections of violations certified as corrected.
These additional requirements don’t fall neatly into the current system, which council members said puts too much of the burden on tenants to both report problems and follow up to make sure safety issues are addressed.
The Problem With Inspections
Santiago said that re-inspections are more time consuming than they may seem.
“An inspector will never go into an apartment and just check for self-closing doors,” she said. “If there’s a child under six we have to do a lead inspection while we are there. If there’s a child under 11 we need to check for window guards. All the time, we will be checking for mold and pests. These are things an inspector is required to do once he’s in that apartment. So it’s not a simple ‘check the door and leave’ inspection.”
Santiago said that the department doesn’t yet know how many more inspectors it would need to start implementing mandated proactive inspections and re-inspections of repairs. The agency is trying to fill 100 vacant inspector positions, in addition to nearly 200 other vacancies at the agency, as of March. HPD has also been targeted with funding cuts that would eliminate 28 full-time positions—an austerity measure the council opposed in its Preliminary Budget Response.
During a budget hearing last month, Commissioner Adolfo Carrión Jr. said it has been difficult for his agency to pull in applicants because the city doesn’t pay enough.
“We are trying to attract young professionals to come into civil service and when we show them the salary number, they walk,” he said.
A Fine Mess
One bill would also increase fines to $1,000 for landlords who falsely certify repairs. However HPD rarely pursues court action against landlords. Out of more than 620,000 total housing code violations issued in fiscal 2021, the department pursued civil litigation in just 1,778 cases—which is less than one percent, according to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.
At the fire task force hearing, council members repeatedly asked Santiago how much money has been recovered in fines, fees and civil penalties compared to the outstanding amount owed. While she noted that HPD collected nearly $3 million in civil penalties in fiscal 2021, Santiago didn’t know how that number stacked up against penalties yet to be recovered.
“I understand that it is terrifyingly low as a percentage in each of these categories,” said Pierina Sanchez (D-Bronx). “We want our fees and our fines to be real deterrence for good maintenance in our buildings. We don’t want them to be slaps on the wrists.”
Santiago promised to get those numbers to the Council, but when the NYCity News Service spoke with Feliz on April 8, he said they had not yet been submitted. The department has not responded to a request for those numbers by the News Service.
Every step of the housing safety process puts the responsibility on tenants to advocate for themselves. Inspections are primarily triggered only once a tenant makes a complaint. If the issue is not repaired, the tenant must follow up or risk the case being resolved without repairs.
“If a violation exists, the city should be the one playing the proactive role and not going away until that violation is cured,” said Feliz, a former tenant lawyer. “In low-income communities, families are working two or three jobs; they’re working from paycheck to paycheck. They cannot afford to take the day off.”
When asked if the proposed legislation was enough to protect New Yorkers’ housing safety under the current system, Feliz said there’s more to come.
“This is only the first round of legislation on the issue of fire safety,” Feliz said. “Our city has a lot of work to do on the issue of fire safety, and also just enforcing housing code violations.”
Feliz said that the full council could vote on the bills as soon as April 21.