More than a quarter of heat and hot water violations in the city’s private housing stock have been lingering since last winter, according to city data.
About 330 of the 1,253 active heat and hot water infractions were initially issued in 2017, according to data pulled from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s website in early December. The list of offenders includes a total of 906 private, residential buildings, some of which have violations for both faulty heating systems and for a lack of hot water. Multiple violations may be issued if a landlord does not take action after the first infraction.
HPD Deputy Commissioner AnnMarie Santiago said the city experienced multiple record-breaking cold spells during the last heating season, which runs from October to the end of May, which led to more complaints and violations than during a typical winter. HPD said it is working diligently to correct long-running cases, but that it cannot force entry when inspectors are turned away.
The department dispatches them repeatedly, and if they still cannot get in, it seeks a warrant to access the residences.
“Owners who do make their violations accumulate . . . put themselves in a precarious position,” Santiago said.
When the city gets a complaint about heat or hot water from a tenant, it first informs the building owner. If the issue is not immediately resolved, an inspector checks the temperature inside the residence, and if possible, the boiler and rest of the heating system, HPD said.
A violation is issued if the building is not abiding by city standards: Residences must be at least 68 degrees from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. once temperatures fall below 55 degrees outside, and at least 62 degrees overnight. Each violation can cost owners between $250 and $500 a day, HPD said.
In some cases, the building’s owners may have had heat and hot water restored but did not provide certification of the fixes to HPD and the property is still listed with the open infraction, according to the agency.
Last heating season, HPD collected nearly $2 million in heat and hot water fines, according to Santiago.
In extreme cases, the city seeks permission in an administrative or judicial proceeding to contract out repair work and bill the owner for it.
The city instituted its Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP) to target severely distressed buildings, which tend to have heat and hot water issues, in 2007. Under AEP, the city focuses on 250 buildings annually, and gives them four months to correct violations before HPD heads to court in pursuit of an order to repair the residences.
"Landlords aren’t going to have to just fix the leak, they have to replace the roof or the boiler to get discharged," said Grace DeFina, the head of the AEP program.
If the order is not successful, the city will increase the fines and may ultimately take out a tax lien on the property, HPD said.
"The fees are another way to encourage owners to get out, do the right thing and get discharged," DeFina said.
The agency said it monitors all buildings in AEP for at least a year after the repairs are completed.
While advocates say these enforcement procedures help, they argued the city should hone in on neighborhoods with higher concentrations of heat and hot water violations.
The Bronx and Brooklyn had the most buildings with heat violations that began in 2017, with 44 total infractions in the Bronx and 41 in Brooklyn, according to HPD data. Brooklyn also had the most residences — 92 — with hot water violations that began in 2017, the data showed.
Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx are home to several buildings with multiple violations, which is concerning to Judith Goldiner, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which represents low-income tenants. She noted that both areas have a higher concentration of rent-regulated apartments.
"We do see a lot of landlords who use heat and hot water as a weapon to throw tenants out," Goldiner said.
Goldiner and other experts said landlords have been able to game the system by challenging violations and convincing judges they deserve more time to resolve them.
"They say, ‘Oh they need another day or another lawyer,’ and they drag out the case," she said.
The city’s tactics, however, can be counterproductive for smaller property owners, who want to tackle their tenants’ needs but do not have the cash on hand to do so, according to David Adenusi, an urban housing specialist at Brooklyn Neighborhood Improvement Association. He said the city’s contracting process for emergency repairs makes the work exponentially more expensive than it would be otherwise.
"It’s not easy, especially with all of the court work, and those violations bundle up," Adenusi said.
Adenusi said he tries to connect these owners, who tend to live in the buildings in question, to loan and grant programs run by HPD, but many are afraid reaching out will get them evicted or result in additional fees.
Aaron Carr, the executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, suggested the city analyze its data by owners, rather than properties, and prioritize landlords with a record of negligence across several buildings.
"If there is a portfolio of 100 buildings and only five buildings have a high violation count, that is certainly different from a portfolio of 100 buildings and all have a high violation account," Carr explained. "Ideally you want to go after both of them, but prioritization is vital."