Having no heat or hot water is a hazard that is supposed to be addressed in 24 hours, but the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has likely missed numerous complaints because it wrongly thought they were duplicates, according to an audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“It is unacceptable that families could be left in the cold because of a database flaw that went unnoticed for years,” DiNapoli said. “By failing to respond to their complaints, HPD not only put New Yorkers at risk, but it failed to hold building owners accountable. HPD needs to address the problems we found and ensure New Yorkers are being helped this fall and winter when they complain that they have no heat or hot water.”
City code requires landlords to provide heat from October 01 to May 31 – the “Heat Season” — and hot water 24 hours a day. Tenant complaints about lack of adequate heat and hot water are sent to HPD to address. From July 01, 2017 through June 30, 2019, HPD’s received about 447,000 heat and hot water complaints, many of them for the same lack of heat or hot water problem at a single address. When a single building gets multiple complaints HPD’s data system treats them all as a single complaint. As a result of this practice, HPD considered only about 236,000 of the 447,000 complaints to be unique, often mistakenly.
For example, in fiscal years (FY) 2018 and 2019, auditors found 5,019 complaints, from about 500 buildings, that were linked as duplicates of supposed original complaints — even though they were received anywhere from 10 days to years after the supposed originals. HPD inspected just 440 of the 5,019 complaints that they thought were the original complaints but not the remainder, which they considered duplicates. HPD said the problem was the result of a “glitch” in its system. DiNapoli’s audit determined that the glitch goes as far back as 2014.
Auditors reviewed supposed duplicate complaints from 25 buildings with 869 heat and hot water complaints made in FY 2018 and 533 complaints made in FY 2019. For 24 of the 25 buildings, the complaints were incorrectly linked to a supposed original complaint. As a result, more than 800 complaints affecting 24 buildings were not investigated and addressed by HPD. For instance:
- HPD did not conduct any heat or hot water inspections at a 38-unit Brooklyn building despite 175 complaints over nearly two years, including two winters. All complaints were mistakenly linked to a single supposedly original complaint.
- During auditors’ visit to another Brooklyn building, they recorded a temperature of 52 degrees in one tenant’s living room using a thermometer provided by HPD. Tenants without heat often resort to space heaters, ovens or other potential fire hazards to keep warm.
The audit also found HPD was often slow to inspect buildings after receiving complaints. The agency took three days or more to follow up on 49 percent of the complaints it got in FY 2018, with an improvement in FY 2019 that still left 31 percent of complaints forced to wait for HPD to even confirm they didn’t have heat or hot water. Auditors determined part of the problem was that, while HPD tells owners to fix the problem in 24 hours, it has no formal timeframe for following up on complaints.
In January 2020, HPD launched a pilot software program in Manhattan and gave inspectors tablets that get complaint information in real time, which should improve response time for inspections. HPD said it was planning to expand the pilot to other boroughs.
Auditors looked at 50 heat and hot water complaints and found in five cases tenants responded to HPD’s automated calls that the problem was fixed, and that inspections for the other 45 occurred within 2.76 days on average. However, 11 complaints took four days or longer, including two cases in which inspectors arrived to find no heat or hot water and issued violations.
The complaints that HPD routed for inspections resulted in violations only 7 percent of the time. The audit determined this low rate may result from the delay between the complaint and the inspection giving the owner time to fix the problem – sometimes only temporarily – in expectation of an inspection. Lack of access to apartments to conduct the inspections may also contribute to the overall low percentage of violations. When inspectors have access to apartments, the rate of violations rises about 30 percent. The audit noted that HPD does not provide tenants with a window of time to be available for inspections and doing so could improve the ability to access apartments and identify violations.
Per HPD records, in FY 2018 and 2019, Housing Court imposed $18 million in penalties on 5,763 cases. By September 2019, $4 million had been collected for nearly 90 percent of the cases. Of the remaining cases, 546 ended in default judgments, with $13 million in penalties still outstanding, and 46 cases with $1 million in imposed penalties were still in litigation. In many Housing Court cases, the audit found HPD settled with owners for amounts below the minimum penalty and, even then, often never collected the fine.
DiNapoli’s audit made several recommendations to HPD, including that it:
- Ensure all complaints are processed appropriately and identify all unique complaints so they are routed for inspection.
- Accurately identify duplicate complaints.
- Establish a formal time frame for inspecting heat and hot water complaints.
- Review open complaints to ensure they are being addressed timely.
- Continue pursuing the use of technology to improve inspection responses.
- Provide tenants with advance notice of inspections.
- Establish guidelines for attorneys to use when negotiating settlement amounts in Housing Court.
- Increase collection efforts for outstanding default judgment amounts.
HPD agreed with some of the audit’s recommendations, including increasing efforts to access complainants’ apartments and to review open complaints to make sure they are addressed, but disagreed with others. HPD highlighted that its inspection response time has improved and stated that its “practices generally ensured that the ‘glitch’ did not result in risks to health and safety.” HPD’s response to the audit’s findings and recommendations is available in the full audit.