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DHCR changing complaint policy.

When something's the matter with a tenant's apartment or building, they tell the owner, right? Wrong.

Many times, the tenant runs to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) and files a formal complaint.

Owners have long complained that they could happily and easily fix the problem without governmental intervention and rent reductions, if they only knew about it.

Now, DHCR is finally taking a formal stand on the issue. As of March 1, all non-emergency, building-wide and service complaints will have to be made in writing by tenants and sent to owners at least 10 days before filing a complaint with DHCR.

Heat and hot water complaints are not subject to this procedure, nor are other conditions requiring repairs and conditions where tenants are forced to vacate, such as because of a fire.

From now on, tenants desiring to complain about other problems will have to send a letter to the owner first. When filing a complaint, they will have to file a copy of the letter, along with a copy of the mailing receipt or receipt for certified mail or the green return receipt card, or sign a certification on the form regarding mailing.

The new rule was first disclosed in an internal memo from Deputy Commissioner Paul Roldan to Caroline M. Sullivan, who heads the SCORE Bureau. SCORE stands for Service Compliance Owner Restoration and Enforcement.

The internal DHCR memo details that "Formal complaints will not be accepted by DHCR unless they are filed between 10 and 60 days after the date of the tenant's letter to the owner, except for good cause shown."

According to Sullivan, the new procedure is not going to change the way DHCR processes cases and won't change anything from the owner's side except that they will have advance notice of problems.

"There will be no change in the owner's ability to defend," she said. "Whether or not the owner got prior notice of the complaint is not the issue. "

The prior notice will be a filing requirement only, and will be used to show the tenant fulfilled their obligation to demonstrate a need for intervention to the agency.

For the fiscal year that started April 1st, 1996 the SCORE intake of service cases totalled 6,453, as of Feb. 22, 1997. The average intake during the prior fiscal year was 163 a week, while this year's average so far is 137.3 per week.

Sullivan said the average resolution takes about six months, while "a lot take longer and a lot take less."

But, "it happens frequently" that owners are not notified of the problem and the tenant merely files a complaint with DHCR instead. "And that's one of the things we'd like to reduce," said Sullivan.

Owners reps hailed the policy as one that is long overdue and important to the speedy resolution of tenants' problems.

"It's purpose is to encourage the owners to make the repairs expeditiously" said Marilyn Davenport, vice president of government affairs at the Real Estate board of New York. She said they. were very happy, as this was something that REBNY had been requesting.

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), which represents 25,000 owners, said this is something the RSA too has wanted since 1993. "We're very happy," he said. "We believe that with notice, owners will make a good faith attempt to rectify the problem."

"It's long overdue," said Dan Margulies, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), a middle market owners group. "I think it will drastically reduce the number of frivolous complaints and drastically reduce the necessity of processing the complaints that can be settled amicably between owners and tenants."

Jeffrey Turkel, a partner in Rosenberg & Estis who defends owners in tenant actions, said "Logic would dictate that before a tenant seeks to ask a state agency to devote its very limited resources to what are usually quite minor issues about a window, sink or faucet, at the very least they should prove they have asked the owner first. I'm glad they are finally taking a real world practical approach, rather than the knee jerk one."
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Title Annotation:Division of Housing and Community Renewal
Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Mar 5, 1997
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