City Promises to Make Slumlords Clean up Mold and Kill Vermin: Fat Chance

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City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the city's housing agency have announced that a new bill, set for a hearing in mid-December, will force a few of the city's worst landlords to clean up the mold and exterminate the vermin that play a significant role in the city's childhood asthma epidemic.

That sounds good on the surface, until you realize two important things: Mold and vermin are already prohibited under the city's housing code. And secondly, the new law won't have an impact on the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who face these problems.

The operating word here is "few." The legislation shows that the city well understands that slumlords play a role in contributing to the epidemic. But mold and vermin are a citywide problem. Unless you have the misfortune of living in one of those 200 worst buildings, you're still completely out of luck. Here's why:

Every year, more than 10,000 households complain to the city about mold, with the highest number of complaints coming from the Bronx, the borough that has the most neglected housing stock. Because the city's mold problem is so serious, the Health Department in 2008 started publishing a best practices list that guides landlords in how to remove it.

These best practices are just what they say they are -- voluntary guidelines -- and the Health Department has said it doesn't have proof that these methods would actually improve the health of tenants (something that would be studied further if the law passes).

Like much of the housing code, the Health Department's guidelines aren't enforced. Many landlords find it easier to just paint over the mold or pour bleach over it (bleach is like crack to mold).

Mold and vermin are already illegal under the city's housing code. Depending on how much it has spread, mold can even be considered a class C emergency hazard. Yet these violations are very tough to enforce: Mold can be easily disguised by bleach or paint. The landlord may use poison to kill rats in order to get a violation cleared in court, but doesn't do things like take out the garbage or fix the holes through which rats enter into people's homes. So the rats come back. There are neighborhoods in the Bronx where the city itself reports that 60 percent of the buildings have vermin infestations.

The new law will not have an effect on how mold and vermin are remediated for the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who face these problems. Nor will it put any pressure on landlords to do things the right way.

"All this is is window-dressing to make it look like the city is doing something," says Matthew Chachere, staff attorney for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation. "What about my clients who don't live in the 200 worst buildings? I can walk out of my office, and there are 200 buildings within a 10-block radius of my office. If it's a serious problem, then it's a serious problem for everyone in the city."

The new bill -- if it passes -- gives exact, no-ifs-ands-or-buts guidelines to the few landlords that land themselves on the 200 worst buildings list, for how to get rid of vermin and mold. These guidelines are requirements. And because the buildings are already well on the city and public radar, the pest and mold problems have a good shot at getting taken care of (if the landlord doesn't do it, the city will).

For every other landlord, those guidelines remain voluntary. And by voluntary, we mean: highly unenforced.

"If I'm a tenant," Chachere says. "Why can't I go to housing court and say, 'Judge, make them properly fix the mold!' And they will just say, 'Well, sorry, you're not living in one of the 200 worst buildings in the city. If you were, you'd be you're entitled to it, but otherwise, tough luck!' Anyone who has ever done this work can tell you that these problems become persistent. As long as it's made to cosmetically disappear for a few minutes, that violation is cleared."

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