Legal Aid Demands Rebates for NYCHA Tenants Left in the Cold

 KHOLOOD EID | THE NEW YORK TIMES

KHOLOOD EID | THE NEW YORK TIMES

The New York Times | Legal Aid Demands Rebates for NYCHA Tenants Left in the Cold
By Jeffrey C. Mays
April 12, 2018

It was so cold in January in A’seelah Diamond’s apartment at Fiorentino Plaza, a public housing development in East New York, that she, her husband and their three daughters all piled into one bed every night to keep warm.

The radiators did not work, the carbon monoxide detector sounded an alarm when the family turned the oven on for heat, and if they tried to run more than one space heater at a time, the electricity would shut off.

“The cold was unbearable,” Ms. Diamond said. “My daughters would bring the blankets from their rooms and everyone would be in the bed like a big burrito.”

During a New York City winter with the most days below freezing since 1961, Ms. Diamond, 31, put in at least 10 requests to repair the heat and hot water with her landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, to no avail, she said. On Jan. 4 when the temperature outside was 19 degrees, her apartment had no heat or hot water, according to the court papers.

Tenants such as Ms. Diamond and her husband, Tyrone, 30, who pay $1,282 a month in rent, deserve a refund, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan by The Legal Aid Society. The class-action lawsuit comes after the authority refused a demand from Legal Aid to abate from $2.5 million to $15 million in rent to tenants who were left without basic services during heating season.

“The law is very clear, it requires they provide heat at a certain level, and if they don’t, they are subject to a claim,” said Jennifer Levy, supervising attorney for Legal Aid’s civil reform unit.

The lawsuit comes at a time when the housing authority is under intense scrutiny. Chairwoman Shola Olatoye announced her resignation Tuesday. A group representing tenants has filed a lawsuit against the authority and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently declared a state of emergency at NYCHA and appointed a special manager to oversee emergency repairs such as replacing the boilers and removing lead and mold.

The potential rebate that Legal Aid is seeking is based on the length of the outages and the average monthly rent of $509, or $17 per day, that NYCHA tenants pay. But Jasmine Blake, a spokeswoman for the authority, said the agency is focusing its resources elsewhere.

“Every dollar spent on a rent abatement would be one less dollar for staff and repairs that we need to restore and maintain heat service,” Ms. Blake said.

As the authority’s creaky boilers struggled to keep up with freezing temperatures last fall and winter, 323,098 residents did not have heat or hot water at some point between Oct. 1 and Jan. 22, according to agency data obtained by the City Council. During the same time period, 143,000 out of more than 175,000 public housing apartments were without heat and hot water for an average of 48 hours, according to the housing authority.

According to the lawsuit, the housing authority closed heat complaints before they were resolved and misled the public about the length of the heat and hot water outages and how long it took to repair them.

In a March 29 letter to The Legal Aid Society, Vito Mustaciuolo, the authority’s general manager, said NYCHA created a roving team to respond to repairs and partnered with other city agencies to expedite them. Mayor Bill de Blasio has also committed $200 million from the city budget to repair the heating infrastructure.

Lucy Newman, staff attorney at the Legal Aid civil law reform unit, blamed the authority’s inability to provide heat for residents on poor management and staff cuts. The authority has approximately 248 boiler maintenance workers on staff, down from 391 in 2013.

The lack of heat and hot water created havoc for Ms. Diamond, an eligibility specialist for the city’s Human Resources Administration and her husband, a groundskeeper for the housing authority. One daughter has asthma which was exacerbated by the cold, Ms. Diamond said. The family had to boil water to bathe and spent over $200 to buy space heaters, she said.

“No one in 10-to-20-degree weather should have no hot water,” Ms. Diamond said.