With temperatures cooling in New York, uptowners are growing concerned that their heating and hot water will once again be unreliable.
In early October, Prisleidy Hernandez, 23, had no heating or hot water in her apartment on Post Avenue in Inwood, Manhattan.
Martha Medina moved into her apartment on West 160th Street, Washington Heights a few years ago and, last February, had to heat water on the stove to bathe. For a week and a half, “the apartment was freezing and the space heater was not useful,” she said.
Not having these utilities is “very uncomfortable,” said Sahiana Perez, a high school student who lives on Arden Street, Inwood. “I have to shower in the cold, and sometimes I wake up at night because it’s freezing.” Her building superintendent, who declined to be named, said that the boiler was replaced this summer. However, according to OpenNYC Data, residents of the building made 32 calls on 14 different occasions to 311 this heat season.
All three live in Manhattan Community District 12, which includes Inwood, Washington Heights and Marble Hill. For five years, it has had the highest volume of 311 complaints regarding heat and/or hot water.
In 2020, residents made 11,949 such calls, while most other districts did not exceed 5,000. Last year, District 12 accounted for 6% of the calls from all 59 community districts, including calls that did not specify the caller’s district.
This year, the district is ahead again with 3176 out of 56,153 calls; Bronx District 4 is second with 2768 of these types of reports as of November 29.
Heat season in New York City begins on October 1 and lasts until May 31. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development requires landlords to maintain indoor temperatures at 68 degrees during the day and 62 degrees at night. They must also provide hot water year-round, at a minimum 120° Fahrenheit. But many residents in Inwood and Washington Heights report that their landlords frequently violate these regulations.
Jeremy House, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said that areas with high volumes of complaints about heat or hot water usually have lots of older buildings with deteriorating systems and insufficient investment in building maintenance.
Medina said that the boiler in her building is outdated and constantly malfunctions. When it failed in February, the management company sent someone to repair it. Two days later, the boiler stopped working again.
Replacing boilers isn’t a guaranteed solution, however. Walkiria Valerio, 36, said that her heating and hot water problems started when the management at her building on Post Avenue installed a new boiler. “They said, ‘Oh, we’re going to get a more eco-friendly one,’” she said. “Well, eco-friendly isn’t working.”
Last winter, her family was unable to flush their toilet because the pipes froze. They slept in multiple layers of clothing and had to rise early in the morning to heat water on a portable electric stove because their gas was also non-operational. “It was ridiculous,” Valerio said. However, she has only had problems once this heating season.
Valerio believes that the problem stems from management of the building. Metro Management Development Inc., used to run several buildings on Post Avenue in Inwood, but things went “downhill” when Barberry Rose Management Inc. took over a few years ago, she said.
Hernandez, whose building on Post Avenue is also managed by Barberry Rose, has encountered problems with heat and hot water each year since she moved into her apartment in 2006.
“They’ll probably pick up your call, put you on hold and then not get back to you,” she said, When a representative for Barberry Rose Management, based in Woodmere, New York, was contacted for comment, they declined.
“Heat and hot water are basic services owners must provide in every home. With cold weather arriving, our housing inspectors will be vigilantly working to ensure residential building owners are providing these services according to the law. Moreover, it’s the right thing to do,” said Adolfo Carrión Jr., the city housing commissioner, in a statement.
When a tenant files a heat or hot water complaint, the department attempts to notify the landlord. If the service is not restored, an inspector will verify the complaint and record the violation. If the service is still not restored, the city will contract with a private company to restore it, billing the owner for the cost of repairs.
Halina Alvarez, 39, who has lived in an apartment on West 170th Street, Washington Heights, all her life, said that she had trouble with her heating two years ago but things changed for the better with the hiring of a new superintendent.
Tyler McAlli, 40, who lives on Arden Street said that when Hurricane Sandy hit, his landlord made capital repairs on the boiler and increased the rent — but he still has problems with heating. “There should not be any issues since the repairs were made and rent was spiked,” he added.
Repairs aren’t the only expense racking up costs. Tenants without consistent heat often turn to portable space heaters. “Space heaters really spike up the electricity bill,” says Medina. “They also have a horrible history of starting fires.”
In January 2021, a fire attributed to a faulty space heater killed 17 people in a Bronx building where tenants had complained several times about heat.
Several elderly, bedridden people in her building suffer the most, Medina said. “If relatives don’t come over to help set up temporary heating, many of them have to spend the winter with no consistent heat,” she said.
State Sen. Robert Jackson said that local advocacy organizations and constant dialogue with elected officials are part of the solution. “We want people to be able to advocate for themselves and when they can’t, we step in to help,” he said.
He also believes in increasing the number of legal aid lawyers to ensure that tenants have representation in housing court.
“Everyone that I know wants a safe, clean and comfortable home,” Jackson said. “That’s what people are struggling for.”
About the author(s)
Rachel Lim is an M.S student at Columbia University, covering social issues in New York City.
Sherry Fernandes is an investigative reporter and a student at Columbia Journalism School.