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Landlords become NYC fall guys.

While the presidential candidates run around trying to blame the Los Angeles riots on LBJ and poverty on Reagan, New York had found its own fall guys - landlords.

Assigning blame, and liability, is at the core of some of the housing industry's most pressing problems. Who poisons people with lead and asbestos? Who made some people handicapped? Who creates garbage and who wastes water? The finger consistently points at landlords.

The results are also consistent: the city makes landlords clean up the mess and bear the costs of solving all society's dilemmas. These costs could destroy affordable housing faster than rising vacancies and falling rents.

By now, most building owners are familiar with the impact of water metering on low-income, high-density housing. Owners who provide housing at the lowest average rents wind up paying double or triple the water bills of owners of high-rent, low-density apartments. Tenants who use the water don't pay extra. No water is saved and the building winds up falling apart.

Waste disposal and recycling are other landlord responsibilities that are largely under tenants' control. When tenants cooperate with recycling, the program works; when they don't the landlord is fined. In a addition, the city is looking at regulations to require building renovations or modifications to facilitate recycling collections and pickup, again at owner's expense.

Perhaps the biggest dollar threats on the horizon are the proposed changes in lead paint laws and regulations. New federal abatement guidelines, with costs conservatively estimated at $12,000 per unit, could be applied across the board to buildings where tenants have children under age seven. A mayoral advisory committee is seriously weighing the cost benefits of lead poisoning versus homelessness.

Environmental issues such as lead and asbestos are troublesome not only because of their real hazards, but because there really may be no villains - just people to blame and make liable. Asbestos violations, for example, not only direct owners to correct specific unsafe conditions, but also any other conditions that might need correction. In a way, the city is saying, "It's your responsibility, fix it, and, if we (the city) didn't find everything, you are guilty of non-compliance. Turn yourself in."

As for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): We're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Unlike local handicapped-access laws, the ADA has retroactive effect. Most residential property owners have ignored the ADA because they believe it affects only commercial and public spaces, but the law is unclear. For example, will office use in residential buildings be a problem? Undoubtedly there will be litigation, "blame," and expense.

Nationally, voters seem to be damning the blame-layers and supporting outsides with positive, business-like approaches. Locally, associations like CHIP will keep working to make the city and state regulators see building owners' responsibilities, and capabilities, in perspective.
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Title Annotation:Review and Forecast, Section II; liability for social problems, legal remedies responsibility of New York, New York landlords
Author:Margulies, Dan
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 24, 1992
Words:465
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