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Thermostat games

As temperatures drop, victims of Sandy are not the only cold New Yorkers

Last week, the Bloomberg administration gave a stern warning to owners of buildings that have lacked heat or hot water since Hurricane Sandy: Fix the boilers or expect enforcement action from the city.

The plight of freezing tenants has been one of many painful themes in the weeks following the storm. But analysis of calls to the city’s 311 hotline shows that most complaints about heat or hot water have come from areas far from storm damage, from buildings and neighborhoods in which inadequate services can be a chronic problem.

Between October 29 and November 28, the city’s 311 call system has received more than 37,000 heat-related complaints concerning nearly 13,000 residential buildings in the five boroughs. Of those, only about 5,000 calls came from the 10 community districts, out of the city’s 59, that suffered the worst of the storm surge. And none of the top five districts where the most residents reported having insufficient heat were anywhere close to the storm’s ferocious impact on low-lying coastal zones. Only one area in the top 10 for heating complaints, the Lower East Side, saw storm surge and related troubles with power and heating systems.

The 311 hotline doesn’t capture the complaints of everyone affected by Sandy; many hit by the storm either could not call 311 or may not have seen the point.  But 25 percent of all the heat and hot water complaints since Sandy — more than 9,200 in all — have come from just five community districts, four of them at the northern tip of Manhattan and in adjacent neighborhoods in the Bronx. Another cluster of three districts is in central Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Flatbush.

These areas are the source of considerably more complaints than other community districts with many more residents. For example, Bronx Community District 7 — which includes Bedford Park, Kingsbridge Heights, Norwood, and parts of Fordham and University Heights — has about 140,000 people and about 2,000 complaints, which is more complaints per person than any other district. In contrast, the districts that represent the Upper East and Upper West sides each have about 200,000 people, but only about 600 complaints came from each district.

Just five neighborhoods account for more than 25 percent of all tenant complaints about a lack of heat or hot water. Photo: Rebecca Smith/Flickr

“It happens every year,” said Sally Dunford, executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a tenant advocacy group. “Generally speaking, the reason you see [complaints] clustered in these types of communities, is that these are communities where people don’t know their rights, and people do get taken advantage of.”

Indeed, during last year’s heating season — between October 2011 and May 2012 —the same five community districts  — CDs 4, 5 and 7 in the Bronx, 12 in Manhattan, and 17 in Brooklyn — saw the most heating complaints in the city.

City law mandates that when the outside temperature is below 55 degrees, the temperature inside a building must be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the inside temperature must be at least 55 degrees when the outside temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Dunford, it’s rare to see a building without any heat at all. Complaints tend to be more about what she calls “insufficient heat,” conditions in which a tenant feels cold and/or a building is not heated properly throughout the day. Those who experience these problems can have difficulty getting them fixed.

Corinna Casiano, a resident of Norwood, in the Bronx, has called 311 at least four times in the past month to complain about the lack of heat; residents in three other apartments in the building called to complain as well.

“They only want to turn it on the morning for a short time, and then in the evening,” she said, of her building’s management. (The property owner and manager could not be reached for comment.)

According Casiano, the inconsistent temperature aggravates her asthma. At night, she says, the temperature in her one bedroom apartment is sometimes so cold that she and her daughter have to snuggle together under three blankets, after putting on two sets of pajamas.

An inspector from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development visited her apartment in November, and issued violations for a broken smoke detector, a missing carbon monoxide detector, and damaged plaster. The building also got hit with a violation for not providing access to the heating system for an inspection, but the agency did not issue a violation regarding the temperature of the building.

It’s actually rare for a complaint to result in a violation issued to a landlord. Last year, citywide, 311 received 171,368 heat and hot water complaints. Of those, 9,850 — just 5.7 percent — resulted in a violation issued by HPD. (Many of the calls to 311, HPD says, come from repeat customers.)

Even repeat complaints about a lack of heat may not result in a violation being issued for a variety of reasons, according to Dunford. For one thing, some tenants may feel cold even though a building may be heated to above the legally required temperature. But even when the temperature falls too low, that can be tricky to verify. An inspector must be present in the building to take the temperature at the exact time that the heat is insufficient; often, by the time they arrive, some heat has sputtered back on.   

“Its like this really kind of insidious game that landlords play because every hour they don’t give heat, is money they save,” said Dunford, adding that by the time the city catches landlords, the heating season can be over.

Landlords and tenant advocates agree that HPD takes heat-related complaints seriously. Once the department receives a complaint, HPD calls both the tenant and landlord. If the tenant says that the problem has not been corrected, an inspector is sent to the building. If a violation exists, the inspector also tries to gain access to the boiler room.  If a violation is issued, and the landlord does not address it, HPD can make emergency repairs and then bill the landlord.

One reason the central Bronx is such a hot spot for cold buildings is that many areas are still suffering the after-effects of the real estate bubble, in which many buildings traded hands for much higher prices than their rental income could sustain.

The highest number of apartment units in buildings under physical and/or financial stress are located in the Bronx, according to a report released last year the University Neighborhood Housing Program, a nonprofit in the Bronx that creates and preserves affordable housing. “Either they overpaid and they’re trying to save money, or they don’t know how to run a building well,” said deputy director Greg Jost of landlords who are cutting back on heat and other services to their buildings.

Sandra Erickson, who owns and manages 20 apartment buildings in Bronx, including two in Community Board 7, says landlords’ rule of thumb is to budget $400 per room each year for heating. She says she doubts many landlords deliberately violate the city’s heating law as a way to save money.

“Owners don’t want a lot of violations, because the mortgage companies and insurance companies are checking on these things,” said Erickson, who is also vice president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce and a member of Bronx Community Board 7’s Housing Committee.