Landlords Under Fire

(Published in The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2011)

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By MICHAEL HOWARD SAUL

The City Council plans on Wednesday to approve legislation that would stiffen penalties for landlords who violate city heat laws, aiming to curtail any economic incentive for building owners to withhold heat and hot water from tenants.

The legislation was sponsored by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the city’s chief government watchdog; it will be the first he’s introduced since taking office in 2010 to pass the council. Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to sign the bill into law, an aide confirmed Monday.

“For too long, bad landlords have profited by withholding heat from tenants every winter,” said Mr. de Blasio, a potential 2013 mayoral candidate. “Passing the Heat Act will toughen penalties on those repeat offenders and make them think twice before leaving tenants in the cold.”
Between Oct. 1 and Sunday, the city received 172,062 heat complaints and issued 9,042 violations, according to records from the Department of Housing Preservation & Development. That’s up from the same period the year before, when the city received 169,144 complaints and issued 8,642 violations.

Eric Bederman, a department spokesman, said the agency supports “any legislation” that aims to “increase our enforcement options” against landlords who deny tenants heat and hot water during the cold months.

Currently, the law allows for a maximum fine of $500 per unit, per day for a first violation and a maximum fine of $1,000 per unit, per day for subsequent violations within the same calendar year.

The new legislation aims to extend the period during which subsequent violations are subject to the higher fine to two years, rather than one year stipulated in current law.

Council Member Erik Martin Dilan, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the council’s Housing & Buildings Committee, said “bad owners” need to know that heat and hot water are necessities.

The bill targets roughly 950 buildings that are considered repeat offenders, he said.

“If you’re a good [landlord], you have nothing to worry about—the bill won’t affect you at all,” he said. “But if you’re looking to not live up to your responsibilities, the cost will go up.”

A resident of Queens, Gloria Nieves, 52 years old, said she was using her stove and an electric heater on Monday to warm her Ridgewood apartment because there was no heat in the building.

“We all have to pay the price because he wants to save money,” she said of her landlord. “I will give my life to not have a landlord like this. I want to get out of here.”

Nilsa Glaize, office manager for the landlord, said the landlord didn’t receive any heat complaints from any tenants at Ms. Nieves’s building on Monday.

“Boilers break down sometimes. We do attend to them,” Ms. Glaize said. “We try to do our best. Not everybody will be satisfied.”

Ms. Glaize pointed out that it was in the 50s Monday. Some tenants, she said, “want it to be like summer.”

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