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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Without Heat in the Bronx, Making Do in the Cold

Henry Wren’s home is a two-bedroom Bronx apartment. But he and his family do not live there
so much as survive there.

Their building, a five-story walk-up at 1277 Morris Avenue,
has been without steady heat and hot water for months, he and other tenants

Residents dress for the outdoors even while
indoors, wearing scarves and hats. They use the stove as if it were a
fireplace, huddling around it with the burners aflame and the oven turned on.
They wash up in the mornings with water heated in pots. At night, the
temperature drops to the low 30s in the stairways and hovers in the 40s and 50s
in the rooms.

In one living room, the television set is the
only source of light after sunset, because the light fixture in the ceiling is
broken. In one kitchen, a chunk of the ceiling has fallen. In a bedroom, a wide
swath of greenish-black mold covers a wall. Space heaters sit on rickety milk
crates and chairs. The roof leaks.

“I might as well just close down the house and
go sleep on the steps,” said Mr. Wren, a 56-year-old newspaper hawker, who
lives in Apartment 53
with his wife and son. They are among the roughly 25 men, women and children
who live in the building.

Theirs is a dismal, surreal housing
arrangement that seems as much out of Kafka as Dickens. While Mr. Wren and
other tenants live heat-free, they also live rent-free. Several residents said
they had not paid rent in months because of the conditions. No one uses a key
to get into the building because the front door, which appears to be broken, is
always open, day and night. No one seems to know who the landlord is these

And though the building has not had heat or
hot water, it does have a super, a sad-faced man who lives in the building. The
man, who did not want to give his name, says he keeps the place up as best he
can, but he does not get paid. He said there had been no heat because the oil
tank in the boiler room had been empty for weeks.

“I can’t face those people,” he said of the
tenants. “They don’t have no service. It’s terrible, and there’s nothing I can

On Friday, city housing officials delivered
fuel to the building and sent a contractor to repair the heating system. By
Saturday night the heat and hot water had been restored, though some tenants
were only cautiously optimistic.

“I’m not keeping my hopes up,” said Kevin
Hardy, 44, who lives in Apartment
. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

The 16-unit tan-brick building, built in 1916,
was recently added to a list of the 200 most poorly maintained apartment
buildings in New York City.
According to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the
building has been cited for 181 of the most serious kinds of housing code violations
in the past two years. The city says the landlord owes it $16,880 for emergency
repairs including work done on defective staircases and sagging floors.

The owner of the building is a limited
liability company called 711
Nostrand Avenue
, according to city records.
Lawyers for the housing agency have sued the company in Bronx Housing Court five times since

Three of those cases were for inadequate heat
and hot water, and one is still pending; a hearing on that case is scheduled
for Dec. 28. The agency sued the company for other violations in 2006, and a
judge ordered it to pay $2,000 in civil penalties. Because many of the
violations were never corrected, agency lawyers planned to ask the judge to
impose additional fines at a separate hearing later this month, housing
officials said. The city has already collected nearly $6,000 in court-ordered

Housing officials appear to have had as much
difficulty recently contacting the company as tenants say they have had. Owners
of apartment buildings are required to register with the agency every year, but
the last valid registration for 1277
Morris Avenue
was made in March 2003, housing
officials said. Since the building was put on the city’s worst cases list in
November and is now part of a new program designed to crack down on negligent
landlords, housing officials say they have been unable to contact
representatives of 711 Nostrand

A Brooklyn
businessman, Phillip Abraham, whose name was in public records connected to 711 Nostrand Avenue
LLC, said he was a silent partner in the building and owned a small percentage
of it. Mr. Abraham said that after having a falling out with two partners, he
has been trying to remove himself from the ownership group. He said he was
unaware of the conditions at 1277
Morris Avenue

“I want to talk to them to find out what’s
going on,” he said of his partners. “It’s a surprise and a shock.”

Life in the building is a strange mixture of
normalcy and squalor. Mail arrives regularly. The property has electricity and
is wired for cable television service, and from the outside looks much like the
other buildings in this working-class Bronx
neighborhood east of the Grand Concourse. It is on a clean, freshly paved
stretch of Morris Avenue,
across the street from a 24-hour liquor store and a few steps from a firehouse
draped in Christmas lights.

Yet, 117 years after Jacob A. Riis called
attention to tenement slums in “How the Other Half Lives,” the problems at 1277 Morris Avenue
illustrate how even in today’s thriving real estate market some buildings can
fall into a kind of 19th-century state of disrepair.

Mr. Hardy, in Apartment 43, gets ready to wash the
dishes by simmering a pot of water on the stove. In the living room, roaches
crawl on the golden box marked “Dorothy Hardy Weaver, 1941-2007,” which holds
his mother’s ashes. About 4 one recent chilly morning, three hours after the
couple had turned off the oven to go to bed, Mr. Hardy’s wife, Wanda, 42, had
an asthma attack. He helped her calm down, and then later warmed some water on
the stove to bathe his brother, Vernon Hardy, 33, who has cerebral palsy.

Most mornings, their neighbor Latrisha Lowman,
25, comes over to boil a pot of water on Mr. Hardy’s stove because her stove is
broken. She takes the pot back to her apartment to give her daughter a bath.

The stove is the most relied-upon appliance.
Tenants routinely set their ovens at 500 degrees and leave them on for hours
with the door open, even though they are aware of the potential for fire and
for carbon monoxide poisoning. “I already know that thing’s a danger,” said Mr.
Wren as he sat in his bedroom while the oven warmed the kitchen.

For all their fears and frustrations, the
tenants of 1277 Morris Avenue,
with little choice, seem to have fashioned home lives despite the deprivations
of the building.

Mr. Hardy plays Nintendo games in the
evenings, and he shares the two-bedroom unit with his wife, daughter and
younger brother, plus a cat, a bird and a dog named Lucky. He hung the wishbone
from their Thanksgiving turkey over the door. He figured it would bring them
good fortune.

On a recent Thursday evening, the sound of
children’s voices was coming from Apartment
. Ms. Lowman brought her daughter to the apartment of her
neighbor and friend Nelson Hall. In the cluttered kitchen, they had a birthday
party for Ms. Lowman’s daughter, Myasia Wallace, who turned 5 that day. The
kitchen was warm because the oven was on. Every time the apartment door opened,
the carbon monoxide detector beeped in the stairway outside.

Mr. Hall drives a truck for a coffee company,
and in the evenings looks after his daughter, Tamisha Walden Hall, 21, who,
like Mr. Hardy’s brother, has cerebral palsy. He worries about her health, and
is concerned that the government might take his daughter away from him because
of the state of the building.

“This is not home,” he said. “This is
somewhere where you can just dwell at and think about, ‘Why does this have to
happen to me?’”

Mr. Hall and a few other tenants had lived in
shelters before moving into the building. They had received help from the
federal government to pay for rent through the rent subsidy voucher program
known as Section 8. They had been paying about 30 percent of their income
toward rent, and the vouchers covered the balance. But because the apartments
have failed Section 8 inspections, the government payments to the landlord have
stopped, and tenants have withheld their portions as well.

“They should be paying us for living here,”
Mr. Hardy said.

So the tenants wait, in a housing limbo, for
repairs. Some said they could not afford to move and were waiting for new
Section 8 vouchers. Others had grown frustrated that the city, despite sending
inspectors to the property, had allowed the building to languish without heat
and hot water for months.

The housing agency’s Alternative Enforcement
Program was created this year by the new Safe Housing Law,* which gives the city broad new powers to fix not only immediate
problems in troubled properties, but also entire building systems, such as
heating or plumbing.

“It is simply unacceptable for people to be
living in those conditions, that’s the bottom line,” said Shaun Donovan, the
commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development. “This is exactly the kind
of building we want to fix with this new program.”

spearheaded by Make the Road New York
as part of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development