The fire that killed 17 people in a Bronx subsidized-housing complex Jan. 9 was started by an electric space heater — something thousands of New Yorkers use when their landlord isn’t giving them enough heat.
“We know that building wasn’t heated properly because of the number of space heaters,” says Beverly Newsome, president of the tenant organization at the Ebbets Field Apartments, a seven-building complex in Crown Heights that has more than 1,300 apartments.
The heat was especially bad in January, “when it was 11 degrees or 12 degrees outside,” she says, and the landlord has a pattern of turning the heat up in the morning and evening and down during the day and later at night.
“This is a habit,” Newsome says. “It is a practice.”
At 367 East 163rd St. in the Bronx, Monica Acosta is living with a similar pattern.
“We get very inadequate heat. It only lasts five to ten minutes,” she says. “This has been going on for a while.”
She has a space heater, and other people in the building leave their ovens on to stay warm. “It’s dangerous, but they aren’t giving us what we need,” she says. “If it’s like 20 degrees outside, you have to find a way to keep warm enough. You know the risks. You don’t want your family to get sick.”
Acosta has asthma, and lives with her teenage daughter and foster children.
What The Law Says
Under New York City law, building owners from Oct. 1 to May 31 must provide tenants with enough heat to keep the inside temperature at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. if it’s below 55 degrees outside. At night, the inside temperature must be at least 62 degrees.
The city’s 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.
Lack of heat or hot water is an “immediately hazardous” Class C violation, which must be corrected “immediately.” If the landlord doesn’t do so, 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 114,000 separate complaints about lack of heat or hot water that resulted in 3,855 inadequate-heat violations, both numbers slightly up from four years before. Its inspectors tried to check out complaints 112,650 times, and also issued 5,454 violations for lack of hot water. The agency charged landlords $1.3 million for heat-related emergency repairs and collected about $850,000 in civil penalties, significantly less than in 2016-17.
HPD did not provide figures for this year’s heating season.
According to HPD complaints listed online, tenants at the Ebbets Field Apartments reported no heat in their entire building on six days between Jan. 1-25, and on nine other days in individual apartments — complaints that often indicate building-wide problems. In the 59-apartment group of buildings that 367 East 163rd St. is part of, there had been complaints about no heat in the entire building on five days since Oct. 1, and in individual apartments on six more.
The boiler there was replaced after a fire two years ago, but lack of heat is still a problem, Acosta says — and tenants were assessed a major-capital-improvement rent increase to pay for the new boiler, about $30-35 a month for her two-bedroom apartment. That led her and others to organize a tenant association, working with Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the Legal Aid Society.
Both groups of buildings have numerous other problems. Acosta says she has one room full of mold, and it’s been hard to get any repairs done. As of Jan. 29, HPD listed 87 open Class C violations from the past year for mice, roaches, mold, a locked boiler room, loose stairs, lead-based paint in several apartments and — most ominous after the Jan. 9 fire — two for self-closing doors, which prevent smoke from spreading outside the unit, not working. Only one, issued Jan. 24, was for lack of heat.
Ebbets Field Apartments had 82 open Class C violations, including roaches, mice, mold, water leaks and five malfunctioning self-closing doors.
The complex has a long history of problems. Newsome told Tenant/Inquilino in 2018 that it was so poorly maintained that it was “often mistaken for a public-housing building,” but it is “a privately owned, rent-stabilized complex whose tenants are just being ignored.”
Opened in 1962, it was built on the site of the demolished Brooklyn Dodgers stadium as part of the state’s Mitchell-Lama program for privately-owned, publicly-subsidized affordable housing. The landlord, Shalom Drizin’s Fieldbridge Associates, which has owned the building since 1980, was one of the earliest landlords to buy their way out of the program, which is allowed after 25 years.
It’s now a mix of rent-stabilized and market-rate tenants, says Newsome, and with Crown Heights and nearby Prospect-Lefferts Gardens gentrifying, “the landlord has begun in the last 10 years to be very predatory… the law is set up to allow that.”
The problem with HPD’s enforcement, she says, is that “currently, the system is reactive.” It generally depends on complaints from tenants, and the agency doesn’t issue violations until an inspector visits the premises and confirms the lack of heat — by that time, the tenant might be at work, or the heat might be back on. “In the wintertime, HPD is stretched really thin,” she adds.
“There’s enough information out there for HPD to be proactive,” Newsome continues, but “there has to be legislation that gives them teeth.”
In 2020, an audit by the state comptroller’s office said HPD “has incorrectly identified hundreds — possibly thousands — of heat and hot water complaints as duplicates and failed to respond to those complaints.” Residents of one Brooklyn building, it said, reported lack of heat 175 times from 2017 to 2019 without getting a single inspection, because they were all counted as part of the same complaint.
The audit found that it often took three days or more for an inspector to come, and that HPD does not notify tenants of roughly when they need to be home to let the inspector in.
Newsome is enthusiastic about heat sensors, which send temperature readings to a central computer. They are an objective device that can show patterns, she says, “able to relay the habit of how the heat is on.”
On Jan. 28, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill that would require the sensors in all federally subsidized rental housing. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have also endorsed it.
Acosta says the Bronx tenants whose space heater started the Jan. 9 fire were unfairly blamed, when the real problem was lack of heat.
“They always put it on the tenant,” she says. “That’s not right. They should give us what they’re supposed to.”
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