MANHATTAN — There was already a hole in the bathroom when Jose Jimenez moved into his Washington Heights apartment more than 20 years ago.
He was promised fixes, but over the years, as his building was bought and sold several times, different landlords ignored the growing water damage, toxic black mold, crumbling walls and mice holes dotting the unit's walls and floor.
“The black mold — they just paint over it. It comes back again,” said Jimenez, who worries that his 1-year-old daughter could soon be diagnosed with asthma because of the apartment conditions.
Despite strong research linking conditions like mice, cockroaches and mold to asthma, it's nearly impossible for tenants to force landlords to resolve them because under current regulations, they are rarely classified as the most serious housing violations that are considered to present an immediate threat to tenants’ health, advocates say.
That means landlords have little to fear from toothless enforcement measures — which include lenient penalties and elongated timelines for resolution, leaving landlords to drag their feet on addressing the problems, advocates say.
But a new Asthma Free Housing Bill — which was introduced by City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez and has overwhelming support in the Council — would place more of a burden for landlords to address problematic building conditions. The bill would demand greater accountability from landlords to fix poor housing conditions, and provide stronger penalties when they don’t.
“It is no secret there are landlords who neglect units occupied by long-term tenants, as part of a broader strategy to increase turnover and displacement,” said Jason Wu, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who is also representing Jimenez in court.
“Due to loopholes in the rent laws, landlords receive a windfall every time that an apartment becomes vacant," he said. "Therefore, the incentive to harass long-term tenants out of their homes by ignoring housing code violations has only increased over the last decade.”
The bill would establish a consistent protocol for addressing indoor allergen hazards like mold and pest infestations in rental units. It would also make landlords more accountable by establishing clear timelines for fixing the conditions — and actually fix the underlying conditions as opposed to making cosmetic changes.
Advocates believe that poor housing conditions have reached crisis levels.
The statistics are stark: In many low-income areas in the city, the childhood asthma rate is 1 in 4, according to the Coalition for Asthma Free Housing, led by WE ACT for Environmental Justice and other legal and housing groups. Asthma is the leading cause of school absences in city schools and most common cause of hospitalization in the city, according to Health Department data.
Evidence suggests that cockroaches are the leading asthma trigger in New York City homes, a Coalition report found.
But 61 percent of tenants who pursued complaints in housing court to force their landlords to make repairs never saw any changes, according to a survey conducted by the Coalition. Fewer than a quarter were able to get problems fixed within six months of lodging a complaint.
Wu said it’s all too common for landlords to receive mold violations from the city’s department of Housing Preservation and Development, simply paint over the problem and get the violation lifted since the mold is no longer visible, at least that day.
But the mold usually reappears a few weeks later.
“Currently, landlords have wide discretion to remediate mold as they see fit without clear statutory guidance on work procedures,” Wu said. “A lot of these landlords are not viewing these buildings from a place of responsibility to tenants or concern for their safety. They view them as financial investments and then sell them two years later and wash their hands of any litigation.”
Even in a case like Jimenez’s, in which a judge said the landlord had to correct the problem, the courts did not prescribe what that fix must be or that it be done in accordance with Health Department guidelines. The litigation has stretched two years and included 15 court appearances, Wu noted. And before Wu was working with Jimenez, the tenant represented himself in housing court several times over the past decade for withholding rent to get fixes done, triggering quick fixes that landed him back where he started.
If the bill could improve enforcement from the start of a complaint, Wu believes it would help alleviate the burden on the courts, HPD and organizations like his that now spend years dealing with these cases.
The proposed legislation would also require landlords to provide a notice to all tenants upon signing their leases, informing them of their rights, with a pamphlet developed by the Health Department explaining how to identify indoor allergens and the protocols for eliminating them.
The bill, which will be the subject of a City Council hearing on Tuesday, has faced an uphill battle since being introduced three years ago by Councilwoman Mendez, who represents the East Village. But the coalition supporting it has since grown to include sponsorship from 48 of the 51 City Council members, according to the Coalition.
A spokeswoman from the de Blasio administration did not explicitly say whether the mayor supported the bill.
“All New Yorkers deserve to live in clean and safe homes,” mayoral spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie said, “and we look forward to discussing this bill further with Council.”