Op-ed | We must fix the housing crisis and keep New Yorkers in their homes

Aerial view of Manhattan in New York
Photo via Getty Images

Last week, a neighbor called me with an all too familiar story. Her landlord had spent months refusing to make critical repairs to her apartment because he wanted to sell the building. She was told she would have to move out immediately. My neighbor did not realize she had a right to insist that these urgent repairs be made, and to stay in the home she had lived in for over 20 years.

Too many New Yorkers are unaware they have rights and that city government has resources to protect them.

That is why this summer Mayor Adams and the Mayor’s Public Engagement Unit (PEU), which I am proud to lead, announced a vital new resource to support New York City tenants – a one-of-a-kind Live Tenant Helpline where New Yorkers facing eviction, harassment, or unacceptable living conditions can learn about their housing rights and access a wide array of resources.

The initial version of our tenant helpline launched during the pandemic and received over 100,000 calls, providing invaluable support to New York City tenants during a period of extreme uncertainty. But tenants had to leave a message and wait for a call back, sometimes holding their breath for days until they got the answers they deserved.

Mayor Adams was clear that the city needed to do better. Thanks to new funding from the Adams administration, the helpline is now staffed by live operators.

When New Yorkers call 311 and ask to connect to the “Tenant Helpline,” they are directed immediately to one of our Tenant Specialists – compassionate housing experts who often come from the communities they serve and have their own stories of experiencing housing instability.

Through the helpline, we are supporting tenants in the fight against unfair evictions. We are helping low-income seniors and New Yorkers with disabilities freeze their rents. We are guiding others through the process of applying for financial assistance.

And now, thanks to the live call system, we are doing it all much more quickly.  

But we know that housing instability does not take place in a vacuum, which is why our helpline does not either. Connecting tenants to a broader network of programs and benefits is essential to improving tenant outcomes for the long term.

Just last week, one of our specialists connected with a tenant facing the threat of eviction due to rental arrears. By working closely with other agency partners, our team helped her secure enough money from a One-Shot Deal, a loan for tenants provided by Human Resources Administration, to pay back her rent and keep her in her home. But we didn’t stop there. We also walked her through the process of applying for SNAP benefits and Medicaid to put her on a better financial footing.

The PEU Tenant Helpline is only one piece of our tenant support infrastructure. Mayor Adams knows we cannot just react to incoming phone calls; we have to be proactive about identifying New Yorkers who need our help. That’s why PEU is out every day knocking on doors to share information with tenants about their rights and connect them to critical city resources. We are working closely with other city agencies on Partners in Preservation, a coordinated effort across city government, legal services providers, and tenant organizing groups to proactively address tenant harassment in rent-regulated buildings. With our partners at the Department of Homeless Services, we are supporting small landlords to ease the administrative burden of leasing to New Yorkers with housing vouchers.

These steps are important. They are equipping New Yorkers with the resources they need to combat illegal evictions and harassment. But they are not enough on their own.

We also need to ramp up enforcement against landlords who fail to meet safety requirements or make repairs. Last month, Mayor Adams announced our administration had taken successful enforcement actions against safety violations found in over 5,000 apartments that resulted in almost $500,000 in civil penalties.

While the city continues its fight to build more affordable housing, the most important thing we can do to tackle the housing crisis right now is keep New Yorkers secure in their existing homes. PEU is proud to be there to answer the call.