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Armed With a Laptop and a Spreadsheet, He Takes on the City – World – Pulselive.co.ke

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Aaron Carr, however, does.Carr, 30, is the founder of a startup tenant watchdog agency, the Housing Rights Initiative, and his specialty is searching public records at state and city agencies to expose what he says is a broken system of tenant protections.

On Monday, Carr’s latest report is scheduled to be released at a news conference on the steps of City Hall with City Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. According to HRI’s research, on more than 10,000 building permits filed with the city over the past two years, landlords lied about whether there were rent-regulated tenants in their buildings — and got away with it.

Torres said that the city, which has made affordable housing a priority, should shoulder an equal amount of the blame. “Just as scandalous as the number of falsified permits is the failure of enforcement by the Department of Buildings,” he said.

City officials said that HRI’s claims are overblown. The Buildings Department has not seen the latest report, but a spokesman, Joseph Soldavere, said that 10,000 permits represents only 3 percent of all the permits issued by the department over the two years in question.

And while the buildings department is hiring 70 new inspectors, he said that a landlord who mistakenly checks the wrong box on a permit application is not necessarily breaking the law.

“Every day, the Buildings Department holds landlords accountable for their obligation to provide safe buildings for tenants, both on our own and through our work on the city-state Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force,” Soldavere said.

In its scant two-year existence, HRI has had an oversized impact on landlord-tenant relations: Carr’s group has issued a series of scathing reports on bad behavior by landlords, enabled by what it says is the failure of state and city government to hold them accountable.

HRI does not stop at issuing reports. It puts together tenants with lawyers willing to work for free or on contingency, and has helped initiate 49 lawsuits, against state and city officials and some of the city’s biggest landlords: A&E Real Estate Holdings; Stellar Management, Bronstein Properties, and, especially, Charles Kushner of Kushner Cos., whose son Jared is a son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump.

In March, Carr issued a report claiming that Kushner Cos. had falsified more than 80 work permit applications for 34 buildings. In July, 20 current and former tenants working with HRI filed a lawsuit against the Kushners saying that they were forced out of their apartments at 184 Kent Ave. in Brooklyn by construction work that filled the building with “loud and obnoxious drilling” and a constant cloud of toxic smoke and dust.”

“This is the beauty of our model, which is low cost, high impact,” Carr said as he fiddled with his ubiquitous laptop. “It’s all about publicly available data and connecting tenants to no-out-of-pocket legal support.”

Lucas A. Ferrara of Newman Ferrara, the law firm representing the tenants in the Kushner suit said, “Aaron has probably done more for rent-regulated tenants in New York City over the past three years than the city and state agencies have done in the last 20 years.”

But Adam Leitman Bailey, a lawyer representing or advising landlords in a number of the lawsuits, has a different perspective. “Aaron Carr is a very dangerous young man with his tongue,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone, aside from Donald Trump, who can manipulate the press as well as he does. At the same time, he is hurting and damaging the reputations of many innocent and reputable landlords.”

Bailey, well known for vigorously defending his clients in both the courts and the media, contends that many of the HRI-inspired lawsuits are “frivolous.”

The state Supreme Court tossed out on technical grounds an HRI-born class action lawsuit against a company called Big City Properties claiming that the Harlem landlord had violated rent regulations at 11 buildings and inflated rents by overstating the cost of apartment improvements.

But the state’s Appellate Division recently reinstated many of the claims against Big City. Worried that the decision would make it easier for tenants to sue landlords, the industry’s powerful lobbyist, the Rent Stabilization Association, has asked permission to join a possible appeal by Big City to the state’s highest court.

Carr, who grew up on Long Island and lives on the Upper West Side, did not start out as a tenant activist. He graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in psychology.

In 2014, he ran Michael Blake’s successful campaign for an Assembly seat in the South Bronx and subsequently became Blake’s chief of staff. In that role, Carr said he would repeatedly call city and state agencies on behalf of tenants tangling with landlords, pleading for inspectors to visit their buildings.

“It was like waiting for Superman,” Carr said, “but Superman never came.”

Carr formed HRI in 2016 with “a couple thousand dollars” of his own money, based on a “bottom up enforcement approach,” scrutinizing records at the city’s Finance and Building departments and the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees the city’s 1 million rent-regulated apartments.

Today, HRI has two full-time and one part-time employees, including Carr, and a budget of $225,000, much of which comes from individual donations and the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity dedicated to fighting poverty.

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Robin Hood’s board includes Jeff T. Blau, chief executive of Related Cos., one of the city’s biggest developers; and Paul Tudor Jones II, a hedge fund manager.

The bulk of the lawsuits filed have been related to violations of the city’s J-51 housing program, which grants tax breaks to landlords of rental apartments who invest in new roofs, boilers and elevators. Building owners are prohibited from deregulating apartments as long as they receive the tax benefits.

In one HRI-initiated lawsuit, against Argo Real Estate, a building owner and property manager, lawyers contend that Argo improperly deregulated 369 rent-regulated apartments at nine buildings in Queens, while getting more than $1 million in tax breaks.

A lawyer for Argo, which has not responded to the complaint, declined to comment. One of the lawyers who brought the suit, Shaina Weissman, said that the two sides have been in settlement discussions, but that little progress had been made.

Carr and HRI have not left the state, which oversees rent regulated housing, off the hook.

In May, Carr sued the state for refusing to release the names of “cheating landlords” who have been caught defrauding the J-51 program in audits the Cuomo administration began in 2016. The suit sought to compel the Division of Housing and Community Renewal to release the names.

Carr complained that legislators do not have the will to enforce the laws already on the books, because a steady flow of political contributions at a state level come from the real estate industry

“New York state’s broken campaign finance laws have turned housing enforcement into a real estate protection system,” he said.

HRI also says city agencies have failed to aggressively go after unscrupulous landlords. This month, Carr released a report saying that the city has failed to collect $1.5 billion in fines from landlords for violations ranging from “loose rubbish” to failure to notify authorities of asbestos, including more than $350,000 it said was owed by the Kushner Cos.

Asiza Taylor, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Finance, said that HRI has “surfaced a legitimate issue regarding the difficulty in collecting” fines from landlords. Officials acknowledge that there often are disconnects in the system designed to protect tenants, with city and state agencies using different data systems, and poor communication between the city agencies that issue violations and the Finance Department, which is supposed to collect the fines.

A building’s owner is often a limited liability company and a landlord may hold numerous buildings, each in a separate LLC; the finance department often does not know the name of the company or individual behind them.

Taylor said the agency is proud of the work it has done in recent years to get landlords to pay their fines.

According to the Finance Department, the Kushners owe $197,000 in unpaid fines, but have paid $108,000 in penalties issued for the past eight years.

But that figure does not include $210,000 in fines assessed by the Buildings Department in August. The city’s action came after the March HRI report saying that the company had filed dozens of construction permits falsely claiming that no rent stabilized tenants lived in 34 of its buildings.

The Kushners, who have described many of the building violations Carr has unearthed as “paperwork errors,” or problems created by tenants themselves, declined to comment.

Carr said he is not obsessed with the Kushners, but they are a convenient foil to get media attention for government’s lax enforcement of laws protecting tenants.

“Sometimes a sleepy government needs a very big wake-up call,” he added. “It is notable that while our state and city government have been out ‘resisting’ the White House, it has allowed landlords like Kushner to invade its own house. Our existence is a window into a broken enforcement system and a broken democratic system.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Charles V. Bagli © 2018 The New York Times



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Public officers above 58 years and with pre-existing conditions told to work from home: The Standard

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Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua. [File, Standard]
In a document from Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua new measure have been outlined to curb the bulging spread of covid-19. Public officers with underlying health conditions and those who are over 58 years -a group that experts have classified as most vulnerable to the virus will be required to execute their duties from home.

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However, the new rule excluded personnel in the security sector and other critical and essential services.
“All State and public officers with pre-existing medical conditions and/or aged 58 years and above serving in CSG5 (job group ‘S’) and below or their equivalents should forthwith work from home,” read the document,” read the document.
To ensure that those working from home deliver, the Public Service directs that there be clear assignments and targets tasked for the period designated and a clear reporting line to monitor and review work done.
SEE ALSO: Thinking inside the cardboard box for post-lockdown work stations
Others measures outlined in the document include the provision of personal protective equipment to staff, provision of sanitizers and access to washing facilities fitted with soap and water, temperature checks for all staff and clients entering public offices regular fumigation of office premises and vehicles and minimizing of visitors except by prior appointments.
Officers who contract the virus and come back to work after quarantine or isolation period will be required to follow specific directives such as obtaining clearance from the isolation facility certified by the designated persons indicating that the public officer is free and safe from Covid-19. The officer will also be required to stay away from duty station for a period of seven days after the date of medical certification.
“The period a public officer spends in quarantine or isolation due to Covid-19, shall be treated as sick leave and shall be subject to the Provisions of the Human Resource Policy and procedures Manual for the Public Service(May,2016),” read the document.
The service has also made discrimination and stigmatization an offence and has guaranteed those affected with the virus to receive adequate access to mental health and psychosocial supported offered by the government.
The new directives targeting the Public Services come at a time when Kenyans have increasingly shown lack of strict observance of the issued guidelines even as the number of positive Covid-19 cases skyrocket to 13,771 and leaving 238 dead as of today.
SEE ALSO: Working from home could be blessing in disguise for persons with disabilities
Principal Secretaries/ Accounting Officers will be personally responsible for effective enforcement and compliance of the current guidelines and any future directives issued to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

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Uhuru convenes summit to review rising Covid-19 cases: The Standard

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) will on Friday, July 24, meet governors following the ballooning Covid-19 infections in recent days.
The session will among other things review the efficacy of the containment measures in place and review the impact of the phased easing of the restrictions, State House said in a statement.
This story is being updated.
SEE ALSO: Sakaja resigns from Covid-19 Senate committee, in court tomorrow

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Drastic life changes affecting mental health

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Kenya has been ranked 6th among African countries with the highest cases of depression, this has triggered anxiety by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.9 million people suffering from a form of mental conditions such as depression, substance abuse.

KBC Radio_KICD Timetable

Globally, one in four people is affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, this is according to the WHO.

Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

The pandemic has also been known to cause significant distress, mostly affecting the state of one’s mental well-being.

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With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic attributed to the novel Coronavirus disease, millions have been affected globally with over 14 million infections and half a million deaths as to date. This has brought about uncertainty coupled with difficult situations, including job loss and the risk of contracting the deadly virus.

In Kenya the first Coronavirus case was reported in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health on the 12th March 2020.  It was not until the government put in place precautionary measures including a curfew and lockdown (the latter having being lifted) due to an increase in the number of infections that people began feeling its effect both economically and socially.

A study by Dr. Habil Otanga,  a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Psychology says  that such measures can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse. It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) states that at least 300,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic between the period of January and March this year.

KNBC noted that the number of employed Kenyans plunged to 17.8 million as of March from 18.1 million people as compared to last year in December. The Report states that the unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 13.7 per cent as of March this year while it stood 12.4 per cent in December 2019.

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Mama T (not her real name) is among millions of Kenyans who have been affected by containment measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, either by losing their source of income or having to work under tough guidelines put in place by the MOH.

As young mother and an event organizer, she has found it hard to explain to her children why they cannot go to school or socialize freely with their peers as before.

“Sometimes it gets difficult as they do not understand what is happening due to their age, this at times becomes hard on me as they often think I am punishing them,”

Her contract was put on hold as no event or public gatherings can take place due to the pandemic. This has brought other challenges along with it, as she has to find means of fending for her family expenditures that including rent and food.

“I often wake up in the middle of the night with worries about my next move as the pandemic does not exhibit any signs of easing up,” she says. She adds that she has been forced to sort for manual jobs to keep her family afloat.

Ms. Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Karen, Nairobi says that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status including their family members and if not addressed early can lead to depression among other issues.

“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,”

Sam Njoroge , a waiter at a local hotel in Kiambu, has found himself indulging in substance abuse due to challenges he is facing after the hotel he was working in was closed down as it has not yet met the standards required by the MOH to open.

“My day starts at 6am where I go to a local pub, here I can get a drink for as little as Sh30, It makes me suppress the frustration I feel.” he says.

Sam is among the many who have found themselves in the same predicament and resulted to substance abuse finding ways to beat strict measures put in place by the government on the sale of alcohol so as to cope.

Mary says, situations like Sam’s are dangerous and if not addressed early can lead to serious complications, including addiction and dependency, violent behavior and also early death due to health complications.

She has, however, lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and also launching the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide in the wake of the virus putting emphasis on the three action principal of look, listen and link. “When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance”.

Mary has urged anyone feeling the weight of the virus taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.

“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel, this will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” She added

Mary continued to stress on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of this unfortunate COVID-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.

“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and  also engage in   reading that would  help expand their knowledge.

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