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Most savvy NYC tenants have a checklist of what they look for when apartment hunting, and will diligently scrutinize a unit’s fixtures and outlets, its cleanliness and noise level, its storage space and window exposures. Few, though, might think to ask about the building’s gas line, even though old, decrepit pipes could potentially result in disaster.
The worst-case scenario—an explosion that ends lives and demolishes property—is a terrifying prospect; in March of 2015, an illegal tap into a gas main resulted in the deaths of two people and the destruction of three buildings in the East Village.
The explosion, says tenants’ rights attorney Sam Himmelstein, prompted Con Ed and the Department of Buildings to apply more exacting standards when it comes to a building’s gas lines. “They’re erring on the side of caution now,” he says, which means more inspections that turn up pipes in need of repair, often resulting in a building’s gas being shut off for weeks or months at a stretch.
In NYC, where a significant percentage of the housing stock is prewar, it’s not that unusual for aging systems to require major overhauls, a time-consuming process that can leave tenants unable to cook or take hot showers. This May, for instance, the New York Times reported that Con Ed discovered illegal pipes in a 700-unit building on the Upper East Side and shut off the gas. In March, writes the NY Press, DOB inspections resulted in dozens of downtown buildings losing their gas due to outdated infrastructure; housing advocates complained that landlords were delaying repairs in order to push out rent-stabilized tenants. And last year, in Astoria, residents of the Acropolis co-op building went without gas for months, as they waited for their management company to replace illegal pipes found by Con Ed, according to DNAInfo.
And it can take even longer than that: Alyssa G. recently lived in a co-op where residents went without gas for over a year. The problems began, she says, when someone smelled gas in the middle of the night and called the Fire Department, which in turn contacted Con Ed; the utility’s workers found gas leaking in several places from the building’s pipes.
“The risers had to be redone—everything had to be redone,” the former Upper West Sider recalls, which turned out to be quite pricey for residents. Unable to use most of her kitchen appliances, she purchased a hot plate, a large electric toaster, and an electric coffee-maker; furthermore, the cost for replacing the pipes fell upon her and the other co-op owners. Fortunately, her hot water was not affected, but the building did also have to buy new dryers, which had been using the same faulty risers.
“It was a nightmare,” she says, adding that her twins were only five years old at the time, and cooking for the family became a major challenge.
Chris MacDermott, who owns an apartment in a Park Slope co-op, also experienced a gas outage, though for not nearly as long. Last May, after a neighbor made a phone call about smelling gas, Con Ed found pipes that were old and not up to code, and turned off gas to the building. “It took several weeks to get everything fixed so we could have gas and hot water again,” MacDermott says. “Cold showers are not fun, but at least it was during warm weather.”
A thornier problem for renters
Renters, though—and rent-stabilized tenants in particular—may be the most vulnerable in these situations. SaMi Chester, a housing organizer with the Cooper Square Committee, says he has seen multiple instances of corrupt landlords taking advantage of the discovery of outdated infrastructure in their properties, and using it as way to pressure tenants to leave.
“They find ways to use construction or gas issues as harassment when they have rent-stabilized tenants,” Chester says. “They really do want to get them out of the building. They hope tenants go, ‘Oh God, I can’t take this, I’m going to move',” thus freeing up the landlord to rent the units at a higher rate.
But of course, for rent-stabilized tenants without the income for a market-rate apartment, it’s not that simple. Unable to afford relocating, they end up stuck—itself a costly situation, especially when they can’t cook at home. On Roosevelt Island, the new luxury rental Riverwalk Point is having its own gas troubles, and has responded by providing free breakfast and dinner to tenants, reports Roosevelt Islander, but this is not necessarily the norm.
Citing a rent-stabilized building where gas was shut off for a whopping 246 days, Chester says: “Imagine if you're a single parent and have two children and maybe your mother living with you. That’s four mouths to feed, and the cost of eating out or ordering in adds up really quickly. And at the end of the day, tenants don’t get to take their bills before a judge and say, ‘I’ve been spending $100 a day'.”
What to do if you're a renter and your gas is shut off
Tenants in such a conundrum may not be able to get all the money they spent on takeout back, but Sam Himmelstein says are often entitled to a 10 to 20 percent abatement on their monthly rent. “Gas is an essential service, and not having it is a reduction in the value of the apartment,” he explains. So, how do you advocate for yourself?
“Don’t do it on your own. You have to form a tenant association,” Himmelstein says. “You'll almost always be able to negotiate something with the landlord if you band together. You’ll usually be able to negotiate an abatement that’s retroactive to the day the gas went off, and continues to the day it's restored.”
If the landlord doesn’t want to play ball, tenants could opt to go on rent strike, have the landlord take them to housing court, and plead their case, which would also likely lead to a rent abatement—as well as land them on the dreaded tenant blacklist, Himmelstein cautions.
Instead, he advises going to housing court and filing an HP action, which forces landlords to correct violations or do repairs. HP actions do not provide financial relief, but often within the process of settling them, landlords will agree to an abatement.
“I strongly recommend HP actions. Landlords sometimes don’t rush to get the gas back on, and make people's lives uncomfortable in the hopes a few of them will leave,” Himmelstein explains. “If you bring an HP, the court will order it to be restored immediately. The landlord could be held in contempt—I find that makes them move faster.”
Chester of Cooper Square Committee says he thinks tenants in gas-deprived properties should be entitled to more, suggesting higher abatements, reimbursement for food expenses, and cheaper gas bills to compensate for slow repairs. Plus, he adds, Con Ed needs to hire more employees to expedite the process: “In a city where people need jobs, if capacity is an issue for Con Ed, they should hire more people and train them. Tenants are in the middle, and they’re getting the short end of the stick.”
And from the tenant’s perspective, Alyssa G. advises New Yorkers to ask questions about a building’s gas lines—when they were last replaced, whether they were recently inspected—when they’re considering moving into a new apartment. “You never really appreciate what you have until it’s taken away,” she says.
MacDermott agrees, adding that there was one bright spot to his building’s gas outage: It became a learning opportunity for his child. “When things like this happen, my wife and I use them as a lesson for our 8-year-old daughter,” he says. “Not everyone in the world has as much as us. These events are inconvenient but not life-altering.”
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