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Q&A with Hon. Bruce J. Gould

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-01-31

The Hon. Bruce J. Gould, retired judge of the New York Housing Court and former senior official of the city's Housing Preservation and Development Department, is a graduate of Columbia Law School, and a nationally known authority of urban issues.

How would you characterize New York City's housing industry?

One cannot speak of the housing industry as a single unity, just as the market place provides a huge variety of mechanism for banking, financial markets, and the retail and wholesale commence. With housing, those who develop new and rehabilitated housing often are separate and distinct from the great variety of those who manage that housing stock. The Housing Court is inundated by non-payment proceedings with over 250,000 cases commenced annually. The overwhelming number is not pursued likely as the rent has been paid. But finding housing only opens the question as to how to pay for that housing, the earning capacity of the tenant consumers. Housing is a unique product, the tenant or the condominium/cooperator is in possession of the commodity without having paid the ongoing costs, the monthly charges. You don't walk out of the grocery store without paying for your food. You can enjoy hot water, heat, garbage collection, superintendent services all without timely paying the tab.

What role can the business community play in improving housing stock -- especially affordable housing?

The mayor, other officials and groups are examining the broadest array of issues focused on bring down the costs of housing construction and renovation from zoning, to building code revamping. Those that own as well as those that manage the housing stock, need to raise their participation in the critical role of their tenants having sufficient earning capacity that entails an adequate education, work opportunity and family supports. For those without those resources cannot afford to cover the cost of housing. It was recently reported that an hourly wage of $ 18.18 for a forty-hour week is needed to afford a two-bedroom unit in our area's "Fair Market" rent. Minimum wages don't cover those costs, nor does a shelter rent public assistance allocation of not more than $400 for a family of three. An overlooked aspect is the instruction of the tenant as housing consumer; there is no effort to educate the tenant to the actual monthly cost of maintaining their living quarters. Magical dollars don't exist. Managers have the readily available means of their computer generated monthly rent bill to convey the real hard dollar costs of providing housing. Over the long haul, telling the actual costs of operating the particular building, not statistical figures, would familiarize one's tenants to the realities of providing them with shelter. What was the total building's plumber's bill for last month? Put it on the rent bill. Next month the charges for the building's utilization of electricity, or heating oil. Put the actual costs repeatedly before one's tenants. It's hard to know you're getting something costly when you return to the identical space each day. It easy to fantasize that it's a freebie to the owner.

What about New York City's policy makers and their role in streamlining the housing industry?

Without the work force to pump prime our tourists attractions, our businesses, our transportation system, all New Yorkers will be the losers. It is in the existing housing, not the newly built or renovated, that obviously the vast majority will continue to reside in. The proper maintenance of the existing housing stock doesn't provide mayoral ribbon cutting photo opportunities, but we all know too well at times of calamity, of overheated extension cords or blocked fire escape windows how critical housing code inspection and enforcement is. But when newsworthy, it is likely to be much too late. The first landlord/tenant law enacted to place enforcement powers in the tenants' hands as a consequence of the 1960's civil right movement, awkwardly and confusingly labeled Rent Impairing Violations, has been gutted by the city's removal of the simple asterisk on the Web site availability of a building's violation records. Owners who had been put under the threat of total loss of rental income if designated violations were not corrected after six months after city notification, on condition that the tenant deposited all the rent sued for before being able to assert that "defense." All owners, not just at one time called slumlords, should experience the pressure of enforcement.

What do you see as the trends in the industry, and the intractable problems, and the solutions for those problems?

The mental division of landlord and tenant needs reform, I believe that the long haul education process of the costs of housing operation outlined before, a comprehensive systematic enforcement stance will help retain the very residents whose participation in our city's life line we all so depend on.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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