Enforcing the Law for Healthier Homes
Why We Need New York City to
Enforce Local Law 55 of 2018
Sokhna Seye and Temera Degroot, high school students attending The Beacon School, are concerned about the enforcement of Local Law No. 55 of 2018. This New York City law, passed in 2018, requires that landlords of buildings with three or more apartments — or buildings of any size where a tenant has asthma — take steps to keep their tenants’ homes free of pests and mold, including fixing conditions which cause these problems.
Temera: According to The American Heritage College Dictionary, home is defined as a place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. For many people, a home is where they can feel safe and thrive. But how can a person thrive in a place filled with indoor allergen hazards?
That is why Local Law 55 was passed. It states: “an owner of a multiple dwelling(s) will be required to annually inspect units for indoor allergen hazards, such as mice, cockroaches, rats, and mold.” If any of these issues are found, they are required to conduct a thorough cleaning of the home to fully remove the infestation.
Landowners tend to patch up the problem, which temporarily fixes it, but that results in the development of bigger issues. As those hazards grow, tenants have a higher risk of developing health issues like asthma. In fact, those hazards have affected me and my family.
I can remember when my family and I moved into our first apartment in West Harlem. Everyone was very excited, but my sister and I were the most excited. On our way to the new apartment, we saw a park and we imagined all the games of tag we could play.
After a few weeks of settling in, we began to play tag and hopscotch after school. I would always be tagged because my sister was like a cheetah.
However, as the months went by, she could no longer keep up with a simple game of tag. She would become short of breath after running for less than a minute. At the same time, she developed a dry cough that she has to this day. The person I once compared to the fastest creature in the world soon had a hard time going up the stairs.
Around that time, my mother was standing in the kitchen – her favorite place to be – of our home and saw an infestation of cockroaches on the countertop. She then felt the drip of cold water on her forehead. There was a crack in our roof and water was leaking from the apartment above us. And a hole in our wall could have been a way in for the cockroaches.
My mother complained immediately to our landlord, but it took the building’s superintendent a long time to show up. When help did come, a makeshift repair was made on the hole in the wall and crack in the ceiling. The leaks continued, but they were reduced to a trickle. And now, in addition to the cockroaches, there are rats, too. For six years, I have lived with my mom and sisters in this same apartment. The crack in the ceiling was finally fixed, but we still have rats.
Unfortunately, these kinds of circumstances are not uncommon in my apartment building. My neighbors experience the same unresolved issues yet they still have to pay rent to a landlord who is aware of such problems and neglects to fix them. My mother, as well, still has to pay rent to a landlord who stands by as she watched her daughter – my sister – give up running track because she needs an asthma pump. My sister was healthy, and then she wasn’t after we moved into our current apartment. We should move, but finding an affordable apartment for a single mom with five kids is hard.
The sad part is that my sister is one of many young people of color who are forced to live in a place filled with allergen hazards that was supposed to be a home. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there is an average of just over nine percent of asthma cases among children between 0-17 in the United States. However, among certain ethnic groups, the average occurrence of asthma cases is different. For example, the rate of asthma cases among Puerto Ricans is just over 19 percent, with African-Americans at 13 percent. Moreover, indoor allergen levels are higher in urban areas, and particularly in low-income households, as compared to rural or suburban households. Urban areas are often populated by people, so they are the ones who are being affected the most.
Sokhna: Passing Local Law 55 marked one of the first steps towards propelling landlords to take greater responsibility for damages that tenants are exposed to and to repair them. However, if the law is not enforced, we believe there will be no change – and the law becomes insignificant.
As two young people who are minorities, we feel that Local Law 55 is even more critical than tenants having rights to a healthy home. We believe that this law is about neighborhoods and apartment complexes that are filled with people of color who deserve equal representation.
As stated before, the frustrating reality is that many low-income neighborhoods are populated by people of color and these are the same neighborhoods that are affected largely by allergen hazards. In fact, according to the Urban Institute, among the 13.4 million families with children living on incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, 30 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are African-American, and 6 percent are other non-whites.
We believe the government’s job is to represent the needs and interests of all its citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and economic status. To us, the lack of enforcement of Local Law 55 demonstrates that the government does not show as much concern for people of color as it does for others. It is clear that young people of color are often faced with health issues like asthma, but that will stay the same or get worse if the government does not push landlords to follow Local Law 55.
We are very lucky to be healthy 16-year-olds considering that we have to live with mice, rats, cockroaches, leaks, and more. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many young people of color who continue to suffer amidst these inhumane conditions. We hope this blog post will spur the City government to take serious action to enforce Local Law 55 because change needs to happen. Every person – no matter who they are, or where they live – deserves the right to feel safe and happy in their own home. Not only that, but considering how expensive New York City rent is, we believe there are no excuses when it comes to providing a habitable home – which is the foundation of building a safe and happy life.