Monday, July 8, 2024

What's the 311? How East Village residents can effectively file complaints

Photos and reporting by Stacie Joy

Judging from the extensive volume of comments on EV Grieve posts, there are plenty of complaints about problems in the neighborhood. The list is long, and includes rats, loud bars and clubs, restaurants, and curbside dining structures, nightlife in general, unlicensed smoke shops, drivers parking in bike lanes, cyclists riding on the sidewalk, and emotionally disturbed people.

But what can one do to get solutions to neighborhood problems? 

I sat down with Susan Stetzer, the local Community Board 3 district manager, to find out what can be done when someone is facing a quality-of-life issue.
How does one file an effective 311 complaint? Is it best to do it online through the portal or by phone? 

The most important thing is to file the complaint [link here]. Depending on the time and the complaint, you may have to wait a long time and prefer to use the app. Otherwise, I suggest calling. There may be questions from the operator that will make the complaint complete. I always ask that the complaint be read back to me to ensure all the details are correct. 

Some 311 complaints are immediately processed and responded to. Two of these are the rat portal at nyc.gov (the health department pest division pays close attention to rat complaints and will inspect), the other is "homeless person in need of services." Homeless Outreach will respond — usually within an hour. 

What types of complaints can one file, and when should one not use the 311 system? 

311 is for NYC complaints. Therefore, it won't work for state or federal complaints. If a bar is violating stipulations — such as keeping windows open past 10 p.m. — this is not a violation of city law. However, it violates the bar's state license, so these types of State Liquor Authority complaints should be made to the SLA on the SLA website.

We have recently learned of people making "loitering" complaints, but there is no law against loitering. Doorways, entrances, and exits cannot be blocked, but you should be specific if that is the case. Also, Community Board 3 has a complaint form on the website

It is very helpful to use this form as it guides you through important information. Sometimes, we get a complaint by email or through the form, and the person does not include a contact email and states they have not called 311 to report. Not having contact information makes it really hard to resolve the problem, even more so when 311 has not been contacted. 

Is there a "complaint season?"

Summer is the season for rats and bar noise. Winter, of course, for heat complaints. 

We hear from people time and time again that their complaints are not addressed. For example, The 311 system lookup indicated that the ticket was closed out and no action was taken, that the police responded and didn’t find an issue, or that they watched from their window or door as the police responded by going to the address and then leaving without taking any steps to fix the issue. What can you advise about that?

These flaws do exist. But to answer by issue: Having a ticket closed does not necessarily mean that there is not an action or response. It may be that it was reported to the responsible agency. For instance, the ticket is closed when DOT refers a complaint to another agency or Con Ed. But another agency is now working on the issue. This is where the Community Board can be helpful — we can follow up for you. 

Regarding police finding no issue—that is often the case. It may be that they did not respond for a long time, and the condition was gone. But, if there is a problem situation and there are many calls, there will also be responses that police respond and take action. I'm often surprised by how many times this happens. Also, 311 calls create a record. The Community Board may be working with the precinct and reporting complaints about a location, and the precinct may respond with, "There are no 311 complaints for this location."

If you have called, regardless of the outcome, you have created a record of complaint. We recently had a meeting with the SLA and were told that people should make 311 complaints and report a number of 311 complaints when reporting a problem to the SLA. They specifically said to do this even without a police finding. 

Regarding police closing a complaint when you know there has not been a response or other similar issues, this can occasionally happen, and I have personally observed it. I always report this to the commanding officer or another officer I work with. If this happens, our office will work with you and the precinct.

When is it time to escalate a complaint? Should one also call the precinct or community affairs?

We are fortunate that we have very excellent Community Affairs officers. They also generally remain in their positions for years and gain knowledge of our community and issues. Police should be called for police issues. I have observed at precinct meetings that sometimes people expect the police to take care of all problems — rats, homelessness, and building violations. Contact police for police issues. 

We also work very closely with elected officials’ offices, and different offices will take the lead on different issues. Our state elected officials for state issues like rent regulation and state laws, and our councilmember with some agency issues (such as DOB) where they are more likely and able to get a responsive action. 

Also, all Community Boards are mandated by the City charter to hold a district service cabinet meeting every month. This is a multi-agency meeting to find solutions to multiagency issues and is one of our best tools for finding solutions.
How can residents get their issues addressed, and what type of mediation – if any – is available? 

Mediation is a wonderful tool for the right situations. I remember directing parties to mediation for a community garden dispute. The former director of nightlife devised mediation for bar complaints as a way to reduce the number of violations of nightlife businesses. It has worked for this purpose—fewer violations have been issued. 

Here is an email I received from an officer: "The city has moved away from wanting to cite bars/ establishments for infractions as suchNYC CURE is a non-enforcement unit that wants to help. I also recommend NYC Mend, which will arrange a mediation between residents and establishment owners with professional mediators."

The problem with MEND (mediating establishment and neighborhood disputes) is that most nightlife businesses have stipulations requested by the community and Community Board, and the SLA puts the license on the license as a condition of operation. Mediation does not deal with any legal issues and does not inquire if there are stipulations and if they are being violated.

Therefore, the very method devised by the SLA and community boards to address community issues and support businesses is ignored. I have brought this up with MEND many times, but they do not wish to address this fault. There is also no way to enforce the resolution. I have been involved in two mediations with residents and businesses. Both times, there was agreement on resolving the issue, but there was no follow-up to the agreement. Also, the mediations are secret. 

Many businesses we work with want to be good neighbors and contributing members of the community. We can often resolve problems with information and a phone call. But we all focus on the problems we can’t resolve so easily. It is important to acknowledge our good neighbors. 

Are there any tips or resources you can recommend for residents who feel beaten down by the war of attrition in fighting noise (or other issue) from a restaurant, club, neighbor, or business? 

The only tip I can give is — don’t give up. There is strength in numbers, working with agencies, elected officials and Community Boards. Things change. Lily Fan, the relatively new SLA chair, works with the community and is very responsive. 

Not all nightlife issues are state issues, but for the ones that are, the SLA is very firm in their enforcement. Community Boards may need to do outreach on how to work with the SLA when the final Dining Out guidelines are published by the SLA.

4 comments:

Lmknyc said...

Thank u as always for keeping us abreast of our options. Evgrieve u rock!

Sleepless in EV said...

Excellent article. Sheds light on the process and the pitfalls. Now, if we could only get the FDNY to respond to fire blatant violations in the same manner, it could go a long way to saving lives.

j said...

Excellent article EVG. Important point to mention is that 311 complaints can easily be filed anonymously. 311 complaints are extremely helpful in dealing with noise and also any issues with predatory landlords as you mention. People don’t seem to realize, as mentioned in the article, how important it is to have the complaints on the record for all kinds of city agencies and data collection. Getting my neighbors to send in compliant was difficult until I just kept on saying you can do it anonymously. After they started doing that we had a lot of our issues solved by filing 311 complaints, sometimes daily, in order to get issues dealt with.

Derpy NYC said...

As an FYI, businesses, like restaurants, cannot have permanently mounted speakers outside. This is handled by NYC DEP and can help curb any noise issues.