West 144th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues is a stereotypically grim inner-city block. A long row of buildings stand vacant, seized by the city for back taxes, their windows boarded up or cemented over. The alley behind the buildings is literally knee-deep in garbage. The block has a few bright spots: The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is renovating one abandoned structure, and another building—one of the few on the block still in private hands—houses a friendly little soul food restaurant called Boot’s Place. But on the whole it’s clear that this place has seen better times.
Those times, in fact, were not so long ago. In 1972, Elzie (Red) Robinson, then 71, took over six buildings on West 144th Street and another three around the corner on Eighth Avenue. Life on the block was relatively peaceful for more than a decade. But in the mid-1980s, Robinson watched as his retirement nest egg was crushed by drug dealers who invaded and destroyed his buildings.
It is an all-too-common story in New York’s poorer neighborhoods, where the deterioration of the housing stock has created an acute shortage of low-income housing, costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The total net expenditures of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development were nearly $1.1 billion in fiscal 1991, nearly all of which went for the maintenance and rehabilitation of 6,600 apartment buildings, including 2,800 vacant ones, that the city has taken over from landlords. Because the city collects no property taxes on these buildings, the full costs of abandonment are even greater.
Housing experts say drugs are an important factor that cause buildings to fall into disrepair and unprofitability, and eventually to be seized by the city. Indeed, according to a study by the community group Bronx 2000, “Drug activity has now emerged as the primary, uncontrolled force threatening . . . the Bronx’s supply of decent, safe, and affordable housing, especially for low-income households.” The same is likely true elsewhere in the city.
The story of West 144th Street illustrates how drug activity can spread and destroy a building. The trouble began when Robinson’s wife, who helped him manage his buildings, agreed to rent an apartment to a woman. What Mrs. Robinson didn’t know, but Mr. Robinson did, was that the new tenant’s husband was a local drug dealer. Mr. Robinson decided not to let the woman move in: He refunded her deposit the next day.
The would-be tenant got a Legal Aid Society lawyer and took Robinson to Housing Court, where he was ordered to give her the keys. A few months later, the woman’s husband went to jail for selling drugs. Other dealers began using the apartment, but Robinson was unable to evict them: When he went to court, a woman appeared who claimed to be the daughter of the original tenant. The Housing Court judge not only refused Robinson’s eviction petition, but also jailed him on contempt charges for refusing to provide heat and hot water to the apartment that was occupied by drug-dealing squatters
The landlord’s burdens continued to mount. When the drug dealers set fires and otherwise damaged the buildings, Robinson was hit with citations for violating the Housing Code. When conditions in the building became intolerable, other tenants moved out or stopped paying rent. Robinson was losing money on the buildings and was unable to make property tax payments. Finally, in 1987, the city seized the buildings. “They took away everything that I had in the world,” says the nonagenarian Robinson, who now lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, and is supported by Social Security and his daughter, the owner of Boot’s Place. He is still paying off debts he incurred to improve the buildings he once owned.
How much of the deterioration in low-income housing is the result of drug activity? This question cannot be answered with any precision; when a building is abandoned or taken over by the city, it is usually because of a combination of factors. But the study by Bronx 2000 sheds a good deal of light on the subject. The group analyzed the Bronx’s 198O caseload of felony indictments for drug activity. Of 7,377 such indictments, 4,380—or three in five— resulted from arrests in or near residential apartment buildings. Between 646 and 791 buildings were involved, containing thirty thousand to forty thousand apartments. (The exact numbers could not be determined because of ambiguities in some arrest records.) This is, of course, a conservative estimate of the actual extent of drug activity in Bronx housing; there is no way to know how many buildings had drug dealers who were not indicted in 19~3o. But the numbers are still striking: Roughly one in ten Bronx apartments is in a building where drug dealing was known to have taken place in l9oo. And drug activity is concentrated in the South Bronx, where the figure is one in six, compared with only one in 25 for the northern part of the borough.
Once drug dealers move in, as Robinson found out, the city makes it very difficult for building owners to evict them. Unless there is a police investigation, a landlord must prove in Housing Court that he has grounds to evict a tenant for being a nuisance. This generally requires the testimony of other tenants, who are often afraid to come forward. The landlord himself may reasonably fear retribution from drug dealers. If he does go to court, he faces a system designed to provide tenants with maximum procedural protection. Drug dealers are sometimes represented by the Legal Aid Society or taxpayer-funded tenant advocacy groups. Building owners, on the other hand, must bear their own legal costs, a substantial burden for small landlords like Robinson, particularly if the case drags on while the tenant appeals. And the cases are decided by men and women who may be biased against landlords: According to Martin Heistein, general counsel of the Rent Stabilization Association, the vast majority of Housing Court Judges come from a Legal Aid background. For these reasons, resourceful landlords often must work outside the system to clear their buildings of drug dealers.
On the desk in her East Harlem office, Harley Brooke-Hitching keeps a bowl of spent bullets and cartridge shells she has collected on her property. “It’s for dramatic effect,” she says. “We used to keep a bowl of candies for the kiddies, but I thought this was more effective.” The shells symbolize her five-year effort to clear drug dealers out of the ten apartment buildings she owns, mostly on East 111th Street between Second and Third avenues. Brooke-Hitching, a cheerful, diminutive, fortyish woman, says the effort has been largely successful. But it has also been expensive, time-consuming, and at times dangerous. And, she says, she has received little help from the city. The police seldom respond to her calls, and Housing Court judges have refused to evict tenants who allowed their apartments to be used for drug dealing, even when they did not pay their rent.
Moreover, the drug activity remaining on the block is centered in city-owned buildings. Brooke-Hitching owns about half the tenement buildings on her block; the Department of Housing Preservation and Development owns the other half. It’s easy to tell which buildings are the city’s: Idle young men congregate outside the city-owned buildings at mid-afternoon, glaring suspiciously at passersby. In these buildings, Brooke-Hitching says, the drug trade thrives. On the northeast corner of 111th Street and Third Avenue is a trash-strewn vacant lot, the site of a city-owned crack den that burned down about a year ago.
The city’s buildings on 111th Street are apparently typical. The Bronx 2000 report found that drug activity is far more common in buildings owned by the city than in those owned by private landlords. One in four city-owned apartments in the Bronx was in a building that experienced at least one drug arrest, compared with only one in ten privately owned apartments. In part this is because buildings with drug activity are more likely to be taken over by the city. But it also suggests that the city does an inadequate job of policing its own buildings.
The city could learn a few things from Brooke-Hitching’s work. While Brooke-Hitching says the city’s buildings on East 111th Street have undergone pointless renovations such as the repeated installation of thick glass doors (which are quickly shattered), she has painted her buildings in garish colors—fluorescent green, bright blue, hot pink—to make people standing out front feel conspicuous. Drug dealers don’t like to be conspicuous, so they’ve found other places to hang out. Her uniformed maintenance crew quickly replaces broken windows, paints over graffiti, and otherwise keeps the buildings free of telltale signs of disorder. Brooke-Hitching carefully screens her tenants to keep her buildings populated with decent folks. She has also been forced to resort to more-drastic steps: She says she has paid dealers as much as $5,000—roughly a year’s rent—to vacate an apartment.
Such measures would be unnecessary if landlords had more control over who lives in their buildings. Representatives of the Rent Stabilization Association call for the state and city to reform the selection process for Housing Court judges in order to remedy what the association sees as a pervasive anti-landlord bias; to monitor government-subsidized legal assistance groups, ensuring that they screen out known drug dealers when selecting clients in eviction cases; and to add a rider to all residential leases in the city explicitly prohibiting tenants from using their apartments for the purpose of dealing drugs.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office took an important step forward in 1988 when it used a $500,000 federal grant to set up the Narcotics Eviction Program to pursue evictions of drug dealers and other illegal businesses (including gambling and prostitution operations) from rental property. When police raid an apartment and find evidence of drug dealing, they inform the Narcotics Eviction Program, which contacts the landlord and directs him to begin eviction proceedings. Eviction hearings in such cases are held on an expedited basis, in Civil Court rather than Housing Court. According to Hirsch, the program has removed some one thousand tenants for drug activity in privately owned Manhattan buildings during its three-and-a-half years of operation. Similar programs are now in place in all five boroughs.
The effectiveness of such programs, however, is limited by the number of police available for drug investigations. “It would be great if there were more police officers in uniform, creating a presence,” Hirsch says. “It would be great if there were more undercover officers to investigate these complaints, [and] more detectives who could do follow-up on these investigations.” Given what abandonment ultimately costs the city, expanded drug enforcement would be a sensible investment.