Lawsuits against Housing Authority surge as tenants seek speedy repairs

The number of tenants suing the New York City Housing Authority for repairs surged 40 percent between 2010 and 2011 and has nearly doubled in the last decade, as tenants suffering long waits to get leaks, crumbling plaster and other conditions fixed in their apartments seek to fast-track the arrival of maintenance crews.

Tenants filed 1,248 cases against the Housing Authority last year, up from 700 in 2003. In the first six weeks of this year, tenants had filed another 150 court actions.

Shavonna Bradley is one of them. Four years ago Bradley moved into the Glenwood Houses in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where mold has invaded her top-floor apartment and a plastic bag is the only thing between her and the empty space behind the hole in the bedroom wall. She often hears a crackling sound in the walls when it rains, and water constantly drips inside from the windowsill.

This January, Bradley called the Housing Authority to request repairs. Like all tenants in the authority’s 334 apartment complexes, she must contact a call center in Long Island City and receive a ticket with a future repair appointment.

That’s what she previously did in 2010, Bradley said, to get her apartment’s walls repainted, calling “at least 10 times” over a period of six months until the work was complete. She first called in mid-May, and was told NYCHA couldn’t finish the job before November.

When Bradley called with her new request this winter, the call center informed her that a NYCHA employee would be at her apartment within 24 hours. Nobody showed up. Rather than call back again, while her asthmatic teen son and four-year-old daughter suffered, Bradley decided to bring her request downtown – to the Kings County courthouse.

“It was unfair to be paying rent for somewhere that isn’t in good condition,” she explained. “They need to do something about it.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, Bradley stood in a line alongside hundreds of other Brooklyn residents looking to sue their landlords. Tenants in housing court usually face off with private property owners, but in increasing numbers they are here to file suit against the New York City Housing Authority.

The rise in suits is mostly driven by individual tenants like Bradley who are tired of waiting for results, says tenant attorney Brent Meltzer at South Brooklyn Legal Services. This month, Meltzer filed suit on behalf of eight Housing Authority tenants from Brooklyn’s Ingersoll, Whitman and Farragut houses, alleging the agency failed to make dozens of repairs within the 90 days allotted by the city’s housing maintenance code.

Many of the repairs needs in the group lawsuit were so severe, the suit charges, that they are classified “immediately hazardous” under the housing code, which requires repairs within 24 hours. These include rodents, fire damage, broken windows, lack of heat or hot water or electricity. Others, merely “hazardous,” had to be addressed within 30 days. Yet tenants in the case were forced to wait months – sometimes more than a year – for repairs to be made.

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According to Norma Aviles, Brooklyn borough coordinator for Housing Court Answers, a group that advises tenants who do not have legal representation, a typical wait time for hazardous violations in NYCHA buildings was three months – or three times the legally allotted time frame.

Sitting at her table in the courthouse petition room, Aviles said she always tells people to go ahead an file an action, which she contends is often the quickest way to get repairs made. A multi-plaintiff suit, she adds, is even better. “The repair issue is huge right now,” Aviles said. “When you do a group action, historically, you tend to get stuff done.”

Usually, the city’s Deparment of Housing Preservation and Development, which enforces the maintenance code, issues a “notice of violation” to landlords whose properties are out of compliance with the code. HPD’s own lawyers will also bring landlords to court for chronic failure to maintain tenants’ apartments. But HPD does not typically take action when the landlord is the Housing Authority, says Meltzer; it moves only when ordered by the court. HPD is a codefendant in his lawsuit, which goes before a hearing on March 20.

An HPD spokeswoman said her agency “has no jurisdiction” over NYCHA to enforce the housing code.

Housing Authority spokeswoman Sheila Stainback declined to comment on the increase in the number of Housing Court cases filed against the authority or the recent lawsuit from Brooklyn Legal Services. Expanded efforts by the Housing Authority to make timely repairs are beginning to pay off, she said. “NYCHA has allocated $11 million to reduce the number of appointments in the backlog by the end of 2012,” she said. A special task force targeted buildings with the greatest number of outstanding work orders per apartment and in just 6 months completed nearly 40,000 repair work orders.

The City Council is now seeking to funnel an additional $10 million to NYCHA this year, which would allow the authority to hire trained residents to complete another 116,000 work orders, or roughly 12 percent of the current 700,000-job backlog.

But in the meantime, tenants who can no longer wait are heading to court. In the Farragut Houses, plaintiff Sharon Davis-Knight watches water seep down from the roof onto her bedroom floor. Her bathroom walls are stained with mold and mildew.

In May 2010, Davis-Knight phoned NYCHA’s centralized calling system and was told a repair crew would contact her within 30 days – the maximum amount of time NYCHA had to make the repairs under the city’s housing code. She never received an initial repair date beyond the initial 30 day estimate  Earlier this year, Davis-Knight decided to call and ask if she could file another work order get the same repairs made; she was told that she could not file another work order until her current one was complete.

Less than a week after the lawsuit was filed, tenants reported to Meltzer that NYCHA had started to make some of the repairs.

Valery Jean, executive director of Families United for Racial & Economic Equality (FUREE), one of several community-based groups that brought the tenants in the suit together, attributed the recent surge in court actions against NYCHA to deteriorating conditions of the buildings and continually shrinking budgets. Common problems include falling plaster falling, cracked and peeling painting, corroded pipes and mold — issues that become more difficult to address with extended neglect.

“When you have a declining budget and you aren’t taking care of repairs, by the time they do get fixed it’s much more costly,” Jean said. “And I think people are just fed up. If you’re calling a Housing Authority to fix something and they aren’t, what else are you going to do?”

In order to win cases against the Housing Authority, Meltzer and other advocates say, tenants must keep careful records of their communications, which they can then use as evidence of the authority’s failure to address repairs in a timely manner. In Davis-Knight’s case, she filled two notebooks with records of conversations she had by calling the centralized calling system, detailing her months-long struggle to get the repairs done.

Ultimately it’s up to a judge to decide if a tenant’s complaint is valid based on interpretation of state law, which calls for apartment buildings to be kept “clean and free of vermin, garbage or other offensive material.” Landlords are also required to maintain utilities and keep appliances in working order.

If the court finds that NYCHA breached the so-called warranty of habitability, it can be the basis for rent reduction. In his suit, Meltzer is seeking a court order for the repairs to be made. But a judge’s ruling doesn’t necessarily guarantee action, and plaintiffs may have to bring the authority back to court. “All of a sudden you’re going back three or four times,” he said. “People often get frustrated and give up. If you’re persistent, you will eventually get the their attention.”

Some tenants up the ante by refusing to pay rent until their cases are resolved. Bradley stopped paying rent in January, though she says she plans to pay a portion before her March 19 court hearing. “I don’t want to give them my money if it’s not going to be fixed,” she said.

Court records show this isn’t Bradley’s first time failing to send rent payments to the Housing Authority. Last March, NYCHA successfully sued her for $1,433 in owed rent money. Under the heading titled “defense” on her filing, she simply wrote, “I need more time to pay my rent.”

Bradley remains in tough financial straits. She was recently laid off from her job as a clerk at Fedcap Rehabilitation Service. If Bradley is going to spend her scarce funds on rent, she says, the aparmtent has to be habitable. “It’s just not right,” she said. “I’m just praying and hoping that something gets done. At the end of the day, I still need a place to live.”

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