The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: the gothamist

Behold: the Power of 311!

18.6 million 311 calls in 2010, source: Wall Street Journal, 2010)

Over the past couple of years, researchers have analyzed 311 in all sorts of fascinating ways.  Mapping out what kinds of complaints New Yorkers are reporting can tell us a lot about the state of the city, how it’s changed, and the kinds of things New Yorkers want to kvetch about.   Apparently, 311 operators receive calls for advice on anything from how to dispose of spoiled milk to help with marital problems.  As tenant organizers, we’re particularly interested in 311 calls in relations to tenants.  According to a 2010 NY Times article:

Tenant complaints are the fourth most common calls to 311. And that doesn’t count inadequate-heat complaints, which are second only to noise.

Calling 3-11 to record a housing violation can be a pain.  I’ve only done it once or twice, but most of the tenants in the buildings I work in have had frustrating experiences.  Tenants are required to spend time on the phone, schedule an appointment with a city inspector to inspect the violation,  and ultimately see few or no tangible results.  In an emergency, the city makes the necessary repairs, particularly to address lead paint or problematic leak.  At the very least, the city records the violation and tags on a fine for a landlord.  It’s difficult to encourage tenants to continue calling 311 when it all seems so futile.

Nevertheless, one of the first things we encourage tenants to do is to call 311 and report all violations in their building and apartment.  During a building campaign, a high violation count can be used by lawyers, politicians, and the media to demonstrate conditions in a building or unit, and to draw attention to the larger campaign.

We realize that the violation count on a building does not tell the whole story, and can often inaccurately state the level of distress.  We often see landloreds sweeping in to buy a building, and quickly clear violations through patch-work repairs: painting over mold, throwing some dry wall on a leak.  These repairs are not sustainable, and create reoccurring problems both for tenants and for the city that has to send inspectors back to record the same violation over and over again.  This problem is the basis for the new city legislation which would force landlords to fix underlying conditions.  Instead of patching a leak, they’d have to fix the roof.  As organizers, we encourage tenants to call 311 on any problems including faulty repairs so that the violation count can more accurately reflect conditions.

In addition to the concrete ways that 311 violations serve as a tool for tenants and urban-improvement, I believe that there’s a whole other value to 311 that’s often overlooked.  311 is a venue for agitated New Yorkers to complain about anything from a hole in your ceiling to a noisy ice cream truck parked outside at 11:00 pm, and this helps the city run a little better.  If not for a service to report your annoying neighbors or a loud dog, what would the city become?  In my mind, it would be a hot mess of overflowing aggression towards other people?  Through taking out our anger on a friendly operator and feeling as though justice has been served, we can all move on with our lives.

In case you are curious (or angry about your neighbor’s pet lion and not sure what to do) here are some notable reportable violations  that you might not have been aware of:

  • Report an item or animal that has fallen into a catch basin.
  • Make a complaint about a yellow taxi driver’s rudeness, unsafe driving, or refusal to comply with a request, or a problem with vehicle maintenance.
  • Report a foul odor coming from an unknown source.
  • Report a homeless person who is currently ill, dangerous, creating a hazard, or outstretched in a subway or other Transit District area.
  • Report a dog that barks too much and too loudly.
  • Report of noise from inside a house of worship.

H+T Affordability Index: A Useful Tool?

As a former geography major in college, I was really interested to discover the the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Affordability Index which measures housing and transit affordability.  The index understands housing to be affordable when it is under 30% of one’s income, and housing + transportation should be under 45%.  Through the index tool, one can compare regions to understand how housing and transportation, as well as more specific data such as commuters per household, effect populations. It is also possible to compare two maps side by side, and view on several different scales all the way from nationally to neighborhood-level.

While this tool is interesting and has its advantages, there have also been many negative critiques of the data that is used, and its agenda to promote living in high-density areas.  For example, in the article “The Muddled CNT Housing and Transportation Index,” Wendell Cox points out several opportunities for readers to misinterpret data.  For example, the index uses metro-median income, even when analyzing the data on a neighborhood level.  Cox explores of a neighborhood in Dallas to make his point:

The H&T Index indicates that housing costs are 8% of incomes in the low-income West Dallas neighborhood when compared to median metropolitan income. However, when the neighborhood income is used, the share of income required for housing is 57%, nearly twice the HUD maximum standard.

The use of median income by metro-area certainly would not translate in areas where UHAB organizers work such as Brooklyn where incomes vary greatly block by block and change dramatically as a result of gentrification.  The map of Bed-Stuy, for example, where we just began working with low-income tenants in a severely distressed AEP building, uses a metro-median income of $63,553– this is clearly much higher than the actual income of tenants in the building, and likely higher than most of the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, there is value in experimenting with the maps and generating information about regions, whether or not it’s the ideal tool to use.  For NYC transit workers and OWS solidarity groups, the current transportation system is abominable.  In a release published by The Gothamist, activists declare:

The cost of our Metrocards has been increasing, while train and bus service has been steadily reduced. Budget cuts have precipitated station closings and staff/safety reductions. Police routinely single out young black and Latino men for searches at the turnstile. Layoffs and attrition means cutting staff levels to the bare minimum, reducing services for seniors and disabled riders. At the same time, MTA workers have been laid off and have had their benefits drastically reduced. Contract negotiations are completely stalled.

In protest, activists opened over 20 service gates for subway entrance and chained the doors open to provide free access for commuters.  Perhaps one day, transportation will be permanently affordable for all, but until then it’s important to think critically housing and transportation and its impact on poverty in our communities.


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