Gotham Gazette

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New Bills: Housing Repairs and a Street Fight

City Council members on April 12 introduced two bills that would create a system to provide more rigorous inspection and more extensive repairs for buildings with flagrant housing violations. Council members took advantage of the meeting to denounce controversial radio host Don Imus, but at the same time, they ignited a furor of their own when a routine bill to change the names of a number of city streets included an avenue named after activist Sonny Carson.

Safer Housing

The two housing bills would increase the city's power to inspect and repair neglected buildings at the landlords' expense.

Intro 560, introduced by Councilmembers Vincent Gentile, Melinda Katz and Erik Dilan, would help city inspectors gain access to buildings with violations. According to Eric Kuo of Councilmember Vincent Gentile's office, housing inspectors currently lack clear guidelines to gain access to buildings when property owners refuse to let them in. The bill sets forth a procedure for inspectors to document their unsuccessful visits and secure warrants from the court.

Under the proposed Safe Housing Act (Intro 561), introduced by Councilmembers Letitia James, Gale Brewer and Erik Dilan, and Speaker Christine Quinn, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development would force repairs of residential buildings with the most egregious safety violations. The city currently has the power to make emergency repairs, but Kate Suisman, James' chief of staff, explained that these repairs are not applied systematically and often only address immediate problems, such as a leaking pipe. Additionally, landlords avoid completing repairs and sometimes have to be taken to court.

Ray Brescia of the Urban Justice Center said of the current difficulties in enforcing housing safety, "More than half the battle is to first get HPD interested in a building." In addition to activating enforcement of the city's worst buildings, the bill would compel landlords to carry out repairs.

With the act's increased authority, the city would target 200 buildings a year for rigorous inspections and "top to bottom" repairs - for instance, beyond fixing a leak, the city could require new pipes throughout the structure.

Under the proposed law, if a landlord refuses to comply with required building work within four months, the city would complete the repairs and charge the owner. According to Housing Commissioner Shaun Donovan, the program would cost $10 million a year, some of which would be recovered from landlords and building liens.

Many New York City buildings chronically fall into hazardous conditions. Repeat violations are common with 46 percent of the 10,000 buildings that received emergency repairs in 2006 also having received them in 2005, and 22 percent having such repairs in 2004 too.

Opportunistic landlords may prefer to neglect rent stabilized units until the tenants leave rather than make the repairs, a trend which Councilmember James summarizes as "displacement by neglect."

With the number of building violations increasing and the demand for affordable housing in the city remaining high, the program seeks to protect vulnerable tenants and to maintain the condition of affordable housing.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York Immigrant Coalition, property owners and agents all support the measures. Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association said, the bills would help "target the really irresponsible owners … who give everyone else a bad name."

Street Naming Controversy

Sonny Abubadika Carson Avenue was one of 53 lanes, ways, corners, plazas and other streets to be renamed in Into 556, Council Speaker Christine Quinn conceded that the council's fondness for renaming streets is often ridiculed, but she urged her fellow members to separate out the consideration of the Carson renaming because of his anti-white statements and "divisiveness."

Sonny Carson, who died in 2003, was a Korean War veteran and active in several Brooklyn movements including the Republic of New Afrika, the African Burial Ground project, securing voting rights for ex-prisoners, the Black Men's Movement Against Crack, protests of police brutality and boycotts of Korean groceries. He also helped to establish Medgar Evers College. Councilmember Councilman Al Vann, who proposed the name change at the recommendation of the local communyt board, cited Carson's civic work in Bedford-Stuyvesant as grounds for the honor.

A recent New York Post editorial agreed with Quinn. And the divisiveness over Carson Avenue was evident at a meeting of the Council parks committee last week as members voted along racial lines to remove the name from the bill. Several protestors were removed from the meeting room.

Though Carson's name will not grace an honorary avenue, at least for the time being, Jerry Orbach Way named for the Broadway and Law & Order star will make the cut after a few setbacks during the community board recommendations process earlier this year.

Councilmember Charles Barron stated that if Carson Avenue were removed from the bill package, he would demand to know the background of all individuals who have street names proposed for them.

Defacement of Religious Items

Also at the meeting, Councilmembers Vincent Gentile and Peter Vallone introduced a bill to protect religious items and displays on private property. Intro 559 would extend the law against damaging houses of religious worship and their contents to private property. Under the proposed bill, such a crime would constitute a misdemeanor and carry punishments of imprisonment for up to a year or a fine between $500 and $2,500, as well as possible civil penalties. In neighborhoods such as Bensonhurst in Gentile's district, numerous religious displays outside of people's homes have been defaced.

Councilmember Vallone also introduced a bill to institute criminal penalties for public lewdness.

Councilmember James was planning to introduce a resolution calling for the firing of Don Imus at the next council meeting, but now that CBS has already dismissed him, the resolution will likely be tabled or modified.

Other Bills

Resolution allowing council to sign onto amicus brief

Intro requiring paint and other markings to be removed by contractors upon completion of construction projects

Resolution calling for new zoning considerations of small single family homes


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