This was the worst winter for Ruth Britt.
Britt, a resident of the Patterson Houses in the Bronx, went without heat and hot water for days during the widespread system outages that plagued New York City Housing Authority developments throughout the city.
Britt, who is on a fixed income, had to buy a space heater and rely on her stove to keep from shivering. The added expenses strained her pocketbook and she had to forgo food and other vital items from the grocery store to stay within her budget. Unfortunately, her situation is not unique.
More than 323,000 residents, or 80 percent of the public housing population, experienced a similar fate to Britt’s this winter when NYCHA’s aging boilers failed at developments across the five boroughs. Outages lasted 48 hours on average and affected roughly 143,000 apartments.
Last month, the Legal Aid Society warned NYCHA that we will sue the authority if it refuses to make amends with its residents and issue rent abatements to those who suffered these outages. So far, we’ve received no definitive answer from NYCHA or City Hall. They have until the end of the month to respond.
Truthfully, we’re not optimistic of a favorable response based on some of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent comments. Last month, the mayor said “people in public housing deserve the very best living standard we can give them with the money we have.” This is not the way the law works. Regardless of any financial woes, NYCHA has a legal obligation to ensure that units are fully habitable, which includes the seamless delivery of heat and hot water.
Per New York City and state law, NYCHA, serving as a landlord, is obligated to establish and maintain certain housing standards. Under the city’s Housing Maintenance Code, heat must be provided between October 1 and May 31 when temperatures fall below a certain degree. Moreover, the state Multiple Dwelling Law requires owners to provide both hot and cold water 24 hours a day.
NYCHA’s relationship with its residents is no different from the covenant that tenants in any other dwelling share with their landlord; and when that contract is broken, there are consequences. In this instance, the consequence for NYCHA should come in the form of rent rebates to its tenants.
Following Superstorm Sandy, we threatened litigation on behalf of residents who had experienced similar outages. NYCHA did the right thing then: More than 35,000 residents received rent abatements totaling $5.6 million for the days they went without essential services, such as power, heat and hot water. We see no reason that this winter’s conditions should not trigger the same response.
Our current stalemate with NYCHA reveals management’s total disregard for the plight of its tenants. NYCHA’s rapport with its residents is bad and getting worse. Not only is there a legal obligation, but these improvements are a prerequisite to restoring trust with tenants and rebuilding NYCHA’s public image.
With an annual budget close to $90 billion, New York City surely has enough resources to compensate NYCHA tenants. We need more than a simple mea culpa. As the age-old cliché goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”
NYCHA has a few more weeks to make residents whole, otherwise we’ll happily see them in court.