The New York Times today published another installment in its year-long series focused on predatory landlords and the damage they do to tenants. ‘Bad Landlords Dodge Full Bite of a Watchdog’ drills down to learn why recidivist property owners aren’t held accountable by City of New York: lax enforcement, paltry penalties, and a bureaucracy insufficiently committed to protecting tenants. Sound familiar?
New York City would seem to have little in common with Beverly Hills. It is a leviathan where one million rent stabilized apartments fall under some form of city regulation. If any city could rein-in landlords it would be the big apple. But as the title suggests, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development is all bark but no bite: the agency last year recovered less than one dollar for every ten it levied in penalties.
Even the worst offenders evaded real accountability. “In more than two-thirds of the cases, the city settled for less than 15 percent of penalties available under the law, the Times says. “Most were closer to 10 percent. The median settlement was $4,000.” Settlements with serial violators sometimes amounted to only a few hundred dollars. “The city’s housing department says its goal is to correct violations, not to punish landlords,” the article adds, and that sounds very familiar.
Indeed that last bit suggest just how much in common our small burgh of Beverly Hills has with the great metropolis to the east. In neither city has there existed a culture of accountability when it comes to regulating rental property owners. Failures in common include neglected repairs; lagging inspections; penalties delayed or deferred; and health issues like mold and lead paint literally plastered over without remediation.
To add insult to injury, the responsibility for policing multifamily properties largely falls on tenants.
Our Institutions Fail Us
The failure to hold landlords accountable in New York City is both a product of system design and a failure of the institutions charged with upholding it. Where we differ from New York City is a matter only of degree: our 7,700 rent stabilized apartments is a rounding error in a city of a million of them. Yet the dynamics and dysfunction are not very different.
New York City enforces city codes monitors housing through its Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Beverly Hills enforces through our Community Preservation division of the Community Development Department. Not so different! Neither city has a housing department proper that is tasked with ensuring the livability of rental housing and the sustainability of families that inhabit it. (Our new rent stabilization program is a step in the right direction, though.)
There are other aspects in common too:
Little political attention is focused on those who rent. Services in New York have always been monopolized by affluent white households in certain zip codes. Race and class is the lens through which officials view constituents. Beverly Hills may not have the diversity but officials here know that election-day turnout is disproportionately lower in multifamily areas. Candidates don’t stump door-to-door and ask for our vote (much less solicit our concerns). Disengagement from the political process only discourages future participation. And residents who rent garner even less of City Hall’s attention than we should.
Regulators do not protect tenants. The Times article showed clearly how New York City lets landlords off-the-hook for serious and sustained health and safety violations. The focus is on compliance. Likewise Beverly Hills code enforcement prioritizes compliance and sanctions seem to be a rarity. For the scofflaw landlord the administrative process may spool out over many months before finally squeezing even a modest penalty ($500) from the violator.
Complaint-based enforcement is reactive. The tenant becomes responsible for policing housing conditions and reporting problems. A former City Council declined to create a systematic housing inspection program ten years ago. Recently the current City Council also declined to go in the direction of systematic inspection. Instead our councilmembers opted for a mix of tenant complaints and random inspection. This is why health and safety problems persist in our rental housing.
Civil remedies stand in for real public-sector enforcement. Cities are content to let tenants and their nonprofit representatives battle it out with landlords and their attorneys in court. For example, the Times found that in the most serious cases tenants must sue the landlord for basic maintenance. That is not accountability to tenants; instead it plays to the advantage of rental housing providers. So Beverly Hills tenants must go to court to realize a remedy for unlawful rent increases, unlawfully-billed utilities, unpaid relocation fees, unwitting leases on unpermitted apartments, landlord retaliation and more. That’s because our rent stabilization ordinance identifies no specific penalties for these violations. (Other rent control cities may.)
(City Council could take a modest step in this direction if it requires escrow for relocation fees as has been proposed. But we can do more: penalties baked into the rent stabilization ordinance will allow our RSO program to work with the city’s prosecutor to hold scofflaw landlords to account.)
Low penalties do not discourage those landlords who would violate the law. New York City allows bad-apple landlords to settle substantiated city claims for a dime on a dollar — and sometimes as little as a few hundred dollars. That is outrageous. Does Beverly Hills do better? We don’t know because there is no transparency around code violations. Substantiated violations are rarely seen in online records and it takes a deep-dive via a public records request to learn the enforcement history on any rental property. There is no public accounting of actual penalties paid. Advocates here don’t have the resources that The Times can bring to the task (and landlords like it that way).
These challenges reflect a system that simply does not function to effectively protect tenants. Need proof? Last year Susan Healy Keene, Director of the Community Development Department in Beverly Hills, moderated a public information session for tenants and landlords. She was asked to address tenant concerns that landlords enjoyed the balance of power. Her response: Tenants should maintain a good relationship with their landlord.
That is exactly the wrong message to send. It is the city’s job to ensure that tenants are protected. It is not the tenant’s responsibility to placate her landlord.
The Times says about New York’s Department of Housing Preservation: “The agency takes a gentle hand with landlords who deprive tenants of basic services, declining to enforce the maximum penalties for even the worst offenders.” Indeed! New York City and Beverly Hills have more in common than we might have thought.