During the polar vortex, the real-estate friendly mayor and the city’s inspectors overlook tenants’ heating woes

By SUSAN LIPPMAN

When then Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) was running for mayor in 2013, he vowed to make New York a city "where you didn't have to be a Russian oligarch to afford a roof over your head."

That's only one of many promises that Mayor de Blasio has shamelessly broken, as his ties continue to grow to the Real Estate Board of New York, an influential lobbying group of developers, whose interests run counter to those of tenants.

There was a one-year freeze on rent increases in rent-stabilized apartments. Many of tenants who have so-called "preferential rents," where they are allegedly paying less than the maximum legal rent, are being charged hefty increases when their leases are up for renewal. First of all, many landlords are illegally overcharging in the first place. Many landlords love preferential rents, because when the rents are raised to what is supposedly the legal rent, a lot of tenants can't afford to stay. When they move out, the landlords can substantially raise their rents once again. Tenants are seldom told the truth about their rents and of the landlord's "right" to raise them when the leases expire. Furthermore, tenants with preferential rents are encouraged not to file complaints about anything, lest their rents be raised even sooner.

Has DeBlasio said or done anything critical of this horrible program? The answer is a deafening NO.

For the last few days (February 11-14), the outdoor temperatures dropped precipitously low, lower than they had been in more than 20 years. On the morning of Sunday, February 14, the outdoor temperature dropped to 1 degree below zero, with wind-chills of minus 15.

Thousands of tenants in New York City Housing Authority buildings, as well as in privately-owned apartment buildings, were without heat, or with warm pipes but indoor temperatures plummeting to as low as 58 degrees, 10 degrees lower than the legal limit from 6 AM until 10 PM during the worst winter snap this season.

Mayor de Blasio’s response to the polar votex was inadequate and ignored many dangers

First of all, the use of space heaters, so prevalent in cold buildings, is a fire hazard and a ridiculously high electric expense, one which most tenants can ill afford. Although extremely cold indoor temperatures pose a serious health risk to seniors ; to people with asthma, diabetes and other illnesses and disabilities, as well as to small children. Some people have no hot water, either, an even greater threat.

Second, if tenants tried to complain about the lack of heat, the city offered no immediate response in this dangerous weather. I spoke with several suffering tenants in various apartments, both city- and privately-owned about their plight and about what was being done about it. The answers were depressingly similar. They all said that their complaints were never resolved.

Mayor de Blasio’s announcement to the public at the beginning of this cold spell warned New Yorkers to stay indoors and exhorted all freezing tenants to call 311 to make a complaint to the city. He also urged people not to use space heaters or turn on the ovens to keep warm, due to the risk of fire or carbon-monoxide poisoning.

However, he made no mention of what might or might not happen once the 311 call was made.

Was there any mention by the mayor of emergency inspections and compelling landlords to adhere to the heat regulations, inadequate as they are?  Once again, the answer was a resounding NO.

Whenever people call 311, they are told that they will get a call back in as many as three days. Then, if the issue is not resolved, an inspector will come out. So, on the coldest day of the year, it could takes at least three days to get an inspector, a situation that can be life-threatening for vulnerable people.

And what happens when an inspector finally arrives, or managers, in the case of NYCHA residents?

Does the landlord get a violation that he or she must pay or perhaps face a stiffer penalty, like be jailed? Is adequate heat provided? NO!

NYCHA residents often complain that when the managers come, they never knock on the doors or ring bells, then leave notes saying that they were there but the tenant was not, almost always untrue.

So the complaint is dismissed and the tenants have to begin all over again.

City Hall has been mum about the complaints by NYCHA residents and other tenants. A request made by Progress Queens to Wiley Norvell, the mayor’s spokesperson on housing, was not immediately answered.

According to information provided to Progress Queens, here's a typical example of the lack of heating that happened recently in an apartment building in Queens:

The city inspector visited several apartments, determined that the heat was turned down way too low. The inspector discussed the issue of heat with the building superintendent, and then the inspector informed the tenants that the superintendent would raise the heat level to the minimum legal requirement. Despite the fact that a determination had been made that the landlord was not in compliance with the law, the landlord was not issued a violation. The inspector said that the important thing was to resolve the problem. Well, the inspector left, and the tenants found that there was just as little heat as before. Although the tenants did as they were told by the mayor, there was no enforcement mechanism in place.

Even though the tenants explained to the inspector that the landlord had a history of providing inadequate heat for years and that unless the landlord was given a violation that he would have to pay for, there would be no change in the landlord’s misconduct. Even with the additional information and concerns of the tenants, the inspector did nothing, and the tenants said that they believed that the inspector pretended not to hear the tenants.

Therefore, given the landlord’s failure to comply with the heat provision law, and the city inspector’s failure to issue a violation to the landlord, tenants said that they expected additional complaints were going to be made to 311, and another three to four days would go by before another inspector would show up, and, by then, the outdoor temperature will have warmed considerably. The polar vortex is expected to break on Tuesday.

Is your landlord someone who tells every tenant in the building that he or she is the only one complaining? I've heard that landlord lie from numerous tenants in various buildings. Landlords conveniently forget that tenants, do, indeed, talk to one another.

So let's initiate a city-wide tenant movement, to insure ongoing affordable rents, as well as decent conditions. In every lease there in a clause called the "warranty of habitability," in which tenants are guaranteed a safe and comfortable environment. Unfortunately, today's reality is that so many rental units are neither safe nor comfortable, and the experiences of many tenants during this polar vortex proves it.

Louis Flores contributed reporting.