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Turn up the Heat on Your Landlord

Steven Wishnia Feb 6

Issue 232

“We haven’t had heat for over a week,” says JoAnn Broaddus of the Bronx. “When it comes up, it only comes up for 15 minutes or half an hour. That’s not enough to warm up the apartment.”

Broaddus, a 67-year-old retired clothing-store manager, was one of about 40 tenants protesting outside 911 Walton Avenue and its twin, 923 Walton, on the evening of Jan. 24. The two, blocky U-shaped six-story buildings built in the 1920s on the ridge sloping down from the Grand Concourse to Yankee Stadium share a boiler. She lives on the sixth floor, and wonders if tenants lower down are any warmer.

They aren’t, according to Maria Santana, 63, who’s lived on the first floor for 22 years. “Muchas problemas con la calefacción,” she says. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter from the local housing organization Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), she says there’s no heat at all in the morning, and it comes on for maybe 15 minutes in the afternoon or evening.

“When there’s no heat, I can’t even sleep in my room,” she says. She has to go into a room that doesn’t have a window and use an electric heater.

New York City law requires that from Oct. 1 to May 31, all building owners must provide tenants with enough heat to keep the inside temperature at least 68°F from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. if it’s below 55° outside. At night, the inside temperature must be at least 62°. This winter is the first heating season that stricter regulations enacted last year have been in effect; the old law only required heat overnight when the outside temperature was below 40°, and it didn’t have to be more than 55° inside.

‘It’s ridiculous,’ said JoAnn Broaddus. ‘I’m cold. I’m too old for this.’

The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is responsible for enforcing the law. Tenants can call 311 to complain if there’s no heat or hot water in their apartment or building. When they do, HPD tries to notify the building’s owner or manager, and may also try to contact tenants to see if the heat’s back on. If it isn’t, the agency will send an inspector.

From Oct. 1 to Jan. 16, HPD says it received more than 61,000 separate complaints about lack of heat. Its 217 inspectors have tried to check out complaints more than 63,000 times, about one-fourth of its total attempted inspections during that period.

Lack of heat or hot water is an “immediately hazardous” Class C violation, which must be corrected “immediately.” If the landlord doesn’t, HPD can issue fines of $250 to $500 a day for the season’s first offense, and $500 to $1,000 a day for a second offense. It can also hire a private contractor through its Emergency Repair Program to fix the boiler or deliver fuel, billing the costs to the landlord.

Last winter, HPD received more than 109,000 separate complaints that resulted in 3,449 inadequate-heat violations. It charged landlords $1.8 million for heat-related emergency repairs and collected a similar amount in civil penalties.

The problem with the system, says lawyer Gregory Baltz of the Urban Justice Center, is that “when a landlord structures their heating system so the boiler goes off and on,” the heat can be back on by the time the inspectors come. Maria Santana says the heat at 911 Walton Avenue came on for about two days after HPD issued a violation earlier in January, but then went back to being on for only 15 minutes a day.

At 911 Walton, HPD records posted online show that tenants complained about the heat on eight days in December and seven in January, including four out of five days during the New Year’s cold wave. But the building has no outstanding heat violations: The conditions earlier in the month were found to have been corrected, and the complaints from Jan. 20 and Jan. 24 were still open as of Jan. 25. At 923 Walton Avenue, tenants complained on four days in December and nine in January, including five days in a row from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8. It has four Class C no-heat violations outstanding, based on complaints from Nov. 27 and Jan. 8. HPD found the Jan. 15 and 16 complaints corrected. The one from the Jan. 19 is still open.

The tenants of the two buildings filed an “HP action” in mid-January, demanding that a Housing Court judge order the landlord to provide adequate heat and hot water.

Another problem is that not all tenants can complain safely. Those who live in apartments that aren’t rent-stabilized have no legal right to renew their leases, so they have a strong incentive not to make trouble for their landlords. Mexican-born tenants at 1231 Broadway in Bushwick, a building with chronic heat problems, say their landlord regularly threatens to call immigration if they complain.

Lack of heat often goes along with other problems in a building. HPD lists 152 outstanding violations at 923 Walton Avenue, including leaks, mold, broken floors, defective electrical outlets, and peeling lead paint — the last accounting for most of the 23 Class C violations.

What galls the two buildings’ tenants is that their landlord is getting rent increases for major capital improvements. At 911 Walton Avenue, the state has approved an increase of $13.39 per room per month for elevator repairs. That means Martha Marin, who says she’s already spending half her income as a school office assistant on her $1,562 rent, will have to pay $54 more.

“It’s ridiculous,” says JoAnn Broaddus. “I’m cold. I’m too old for this.”

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OUT IN THE COLD: Tenants at 911 and 923 Walton Avenue in the South Bronx rallied on Jan. 24 to demand adequate heat and hot water for their apartments. Credit: Steven Wishnia.