Should I report bad conditions in my apartment to the City? A guide to calling 311

Should I report bad conditions in my apartment to the City? A guide to calling 311

Published 09/23/2022

This article was written by the team of housing experts at JustFix

Summary

311 is a useful resource to help tenants escalate when negligent landlords fail to properly maintain their homes.

What can JustFix do?

Use our online tool to write a Letter of Complaint to your landlord

As a New York City resident, you can call 311 from a mobile phone or landline to complain about anything from missed trash pick up to illegally parked cars. You can also call 311 about apartment maintenance issues in your own unit or in the common areas of your buildings. 311 can be accessed online and through the 311 app on your smartphone through the Apple Store and Google Play (for Google and Android devices) to quickly access 311 services.

311 is a useful tactic to escalate and document your complaints if your landlord is failing to make repairs and carry out maintenance responsibilities. In addition to calling 311, you should consider sending a Letter of Complaint through JustFix to inform your landlord of repair issues. The Letter of Complaint is a helpful tool to document your repair issues, create a paper trail of communication, and make your landlord take your complaints more seriously. You may send a Letter of Complaint either prior to calling 311 or after calling 311.

Read on to learn more about what happens when you call 311 about apartment maintenance.

What happens when I call 311?

For most complaints, the 311 operator will direct your call to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”). HPD handles the vast majority of housing maintenance complaints, including infestations, lead paint, mold, leaks, heat, hot water, gas lines, broken floors, peeling paint/plaster, and cosmetic issues. 

  • For private housing residents, HPD will dispatch an inspector to visit your building and/or apartment. 

  • For public housing residents, HPD will record your complaints but will not inspect them. Instead, they’ll ask you to call the New York Public Housing Authority, (“NYCHA”) Customer Care Center at (718) 707-7771 or make a complaint online to request repairs.  To get an HPD inspection, NYCHA tenants will need to file an HP Action, a repairs case in housing court

For certain conditions, you may want to ask the 311 operator to refer you to the Department of Buildings (“DOB”). DOB handles complaints related to illegal construction, structural issues with the building, and some building-wide systems like boiler, gas lines, and elevator. If you’re not sure, make a complaint to both DOB and HPD.

Before calling, have a detailed list of every condition you wish to report and make sure the operator notes all the conditions in each room in your apartment as well as the location of common area complaints.

What are the risks of calling 311?

While you have the right to call 311 right away, some renters prefer to call their landlord or super first to request repairs. 

Calling 311 could lead to the City placing violations in your apartment or in the common areas of the building. These violations, depending on the severity and number, may force the landlord to pay penalties or fees to the City. As a result, calling 311 may upset your landlord. An upset landlord could refuse to renew your lease or may increase your rent. This is illegal retaliation. Tenants living in public housing or rent regulated units have additional protections against retaliation but market renters should consider the risk carefully.

Given fears of retaliation, some tenants elect to call 311 anonymously, particularly about conditions in the common areas of the building. If you have conditions in your individual apartment, however, an anonymous call won’t get you very far because the inspector needs to enter your apartment to place a violation.

If you do choose to leave an anonymous complaint about a common area condition, the HPD or DOB inspector may have difficulty accessing the building on the day of the inspection. For that reason, consider leaving a phone number (even one the landlord may not recognize like a Google Voice number) for the inspector to call upon arrival. 

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Send a free Letter of Complaint

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How do I have a successful inspection?

If you do call 311, here are a few tips for a successful inspection:

  1. Provide ready access: First and foremost, you want to make sure you’re home when HPD or DOB inspects. Some tenants call multiple times with the same report before an inspector actually makes it inside their building. Do not hesitate to call often, especially if a week has passed since your last complaint. To optimize the inspection process, ask the operator if you can schedule your inspection during a particular date and time window. If the operator cannot assist, try scheduling with your local HPD borough office.

  2. Take the inspector around: Have your list of complaints handy for when the inspector arrives and take the inspector around your apartment or building to point out problem areas. If you’re complaining about an infestation but the inspector comes at a time that mice, rats, or roaches aren’t out and about, point out holes where vermin enter or droppings as evidence of the issue. 

  3. Show hospitality: Offer your inspector a cup of coffee, a bathroom break, or drink of water. Inspectors spend their entire day running around New York City apartments so they may need a little hydration or a trip to the restroom. A happy and hydrated inspector never hurts.

  4. Be persistent: If you complained about heat or hot water but the inspector visited on a warm day or when the boiler happened to work, call again. Or if the inspector just missed some of your complaints, call again.  If the inspector never comes, call again. You can request as many inspections as you need. 

  5. Check for violations: Once the inspector comes, violations should appear on the HPD website within about a week. Search your building address and select “all violations” to search for common area and apartment specific results.  If the inspector missed some of your complaints and no violation appeared for a concerning apartment issue, call 311 for a new inspection.

How can I minimize landlord retaliation?

Consider how much protection you have under the law.

Rent stabilized, rent controlled, and public housing tenants typically have more protections against retaliation. Tenants living in regulated and public housing have the right to renew their leases every year with few exceptions. 

Further, the state limits how much a landlord can increase the rent every year. If your apartment has these protections, calling 311 may anger your landlord but there’s not much the landlord can do to end your tenancy. 

If you’re an unregulated tenant (also called a “market” tenant) or you live in a regulated apartment but you’re not a “tenant of record” (meaning your name was never on a lease with the landlord), you may have far fewer protections against retaliation. While the law prohibits landlords from terminating a lease or hiking the rent in response to a 311 complaint, tenants often find it difficult to prove retaliation in the course of an eviction proceeding. 

Consider Partnering with your neighbors

Whether rent regulation protects your tenancy or not, acting in concert with your neighbors tends to reduce retaliation. You and your neighbors may consider starting a 311 campaign in which you all call 311 repeatedly over the course of a few weeks. These calls will result in multiple inspections of the building and individual apartments. 

If inspectors place enough violations, your landlord could end up on the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watch List. Calling 311 and reporting violations to HPD creates a nearly irrefutable record of the conditions in your building. 

In extreme cases, HPD may call your landlord directly or even make repairs and bill the landlord for their trouble through the Emergency Repairs Program. That kind of attention from the City may push even the worst slumlord to hire a contractor and repair the building. If a landlord maintains a high load of violations, the building could also enter HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program (“AEP”). AEP results in more inspections and often the CIty will take care of emergency repairs and leave the landlord with the bill. 

To learn more about getting repairs, check out JustFix’s Learning Center about bedbugs, fire hazards, mold, and heat & hot water.

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