All They Want for Christmas is Some Cooking Gas

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Between a slow city bureaucracy and a slower legal system, some tenants haven’t been able to cook for months. Are landlords trying to push them out?

Kristy Arroyo loves to entertain and have people over to her place in Williamsburg for family dinners, but she hasn’t had the opportunity since February. She couldn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving at home this year, and Christmas doesn’t look good either.

The reason? Arroyo’s cooking gas has been shut off for 10 months.

Arroyo has lived at 454 Bedford Ave.—in a rent-stabilized apartment—since she was born 33 years ago. She is a mother of three and takes care of her niece too. Her parents fought for the stabilization in the 1980’s, and she pays $718.40 a month in rent. The building has 40 units, with about 10 to 15 that are rent stabilized, according to Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.

“I used to be the main house to come to, for family dinners and stuff like that,” Arroyo said. “We always had Thanksgiving here.”

For months, Arroyo says she has been calling 311 to report the gas shutoff and to ask the city to enforce code violations against her landlord and help restore gas to her apartment.

When Arroyo first smelled gas in her apartment, she says, she called the fire department. Firefighters shut off gas to the apartment and about half the others in the building. The city’s Department of Buildings then ordered that gas not be restored until landlords make repairs to the gas system, according to city records.

That was February, last year. The landlord hasn’t done anything to fix the problem, and no one seems able get ahold of him either.

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Arroyo, an event planner, isn’t the only person in this predicament. More than 20 families across North Brooklyn were without gas for Thanksgiving, according to St. Nick’s Alliance, a nonprofit, non-sectarian community development organization. And some of the residents are fed up. On Monday, November 28, at 5 p.m., about 40 tenants gathered with politicians, lawyers, and members of tenant organizations in front of 454 Bedford Ave. to air their grievances, demanding both their cooking gas and regular gas be turned on. They stood holding many held signs like, “You can’t cook a turkey on a hotplate,” and “Hey landlord, how was your holiday? You’ve gone COLD turkey on us.”

In one of the chants, tenants would yell you can't cook turkey on a hot plate!

Tenants chant: “You can’t cook turkey on a hot plate!” (Patrick Martin/ The Brooklyn Ink)

The 456-458 Bedford Corp owns the building. Its head officer and managing agent is Cheskel Grunwald. According to the tenant’s lawyer, Joanna Laine, the business seems to be family owned. Grunwald took it over from his parents. (Grunwald did not respond to multiple phone calls to comment for this story.)

Arroyo said she has been using a hot plate to cook, and it is draining her resources because she has to feed four mouths. Her electric bill has skyrocketed—to some $250 a month—since the gas shutoff.

It is the tenant’s right to have heat of at least 68 degrees in their apartment from Oct. 1 through May 31, according to the New York City Tenant’s Rights Guide. However, The guide says nothing about shutoffs of cooking gas.

Here’s how the system is supposed to work: Before any work can be done on an apartment or building in general, the landlord is supposed to file a permit for any work required, according to New York Housing Preservation and Development. According to housing preservation and development, the tenant should contact the owner to fix the problem. If that does not resolve the problem, the tenant goes through a series of bureaucratic hurdles. First the tenant may file what is called an “Individual Tenant Statement of Complaint of Decrease in Services.” If a building-wide service remains uncorrected after a tenant contacted the owner, a tenant or tenant representative may file a “Statement of Complaint of a Decrease in Building-Wide Services.” If the owner still fails to restore the services, the tenant can file a “Tenant affirmation of non-compliance,”  according to New York Homes and Community Renewal policy.

According to the tenant organizations and lawyers from Brooklyn Legal Corporation A, a tactic by shady landlords is to shut off cooking gas to the apartments, claiming they need to apply for permits to make repairs. But the permits don’t arrive, Laine said, causing tenants to become displaced. When they try for a legal remedy, they can get lost in the bureaucracy, according to Laine and the tenant’s organizations.

The reason for the shutoff at 454 Bedford Ave. was three fires and the smell of gas, according to tenants and city records. The city was right to shut off the gas. It is the timeline to have it restored that is the problem. Cooking gas doesn’t have to be restored in 24 hours. However, local elected officials are lobbying to change the city regulations for cooking gas to be considered an emergency service.

Another reason for the shutoff was because of unpermitted work on the building, according to Chelsea Blocklin, a tenant organizer at Los Sures—a community-based, nonprofit organization working to restore the south side of Williamsburg. According to Department of Buildings records, 454 Bedford had seven violations since 2001 including one for unpermitted work, back in 2009.

Blocklin said you could go through all the building permits and find out when they were submitted. “You get to a point, where it’s been 10 months, and you know the landlords haven’t done anything,” Blocklin said.

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But how can landlords get away with not fixing violations? Rolando Guzman, a director at St. Nicks Alliance, said the tenants have to deal with mounds of paperwork and it’s difficult to navigate through the red tape. “Tenants get into this black hole of bureaucracy, and they get sucked in,” Guzman said. He has been with St. Nicks, a nonprofit, non-sectarian community development organization, for 13 years.

The legal case covering the gas shutoff legal case at 454 Bedford is being handled by one of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. Joanna Laine is one of its lawyers, and has been covering the building since September, while the legal service has been helping with the building since 1996. The first court hearing on this case will be in early December.

Joanna Laine

Joanna Laine protesting with the tenants she represents at 454 Bedford Ave. (Patrick Martin/ The Brooklyn Ink)

One problem Laine says she faces: she can’t get ahold of the landlord. Grunwald hasn’t got back to her or her legal team, she said. According to Laine, landlords who face violations like the ones at 454 often default on their appearances in court and never fix the violations.

The New York Housing Law says if the defendant, in this case, the landlord, fails to answer, a judgment can be called without them there. But Laine said this is rarely the case. She said judges are usually lenient on the first default.

Laine said the legal services corporation is looking forward to the next legal step—the hearing on December 13, for what is called an “HP” action. An HP action or Housing Part action is a lawsuit that a tenant can file against a landlord when the landlord will not make repairs or provide services, according to the New York City Housing Court.

When asked what the usual time frame for violations to be repaired, laine said she doesn’t really know, “because the violations tend never to be repaired, at least with the building I work with.

“The whole process is just agonizing for our tenants,” she said. “Housing court is just really slow. Even once an HP action has been completed and we win, the landlord still won’t do anything.”

It’s an unyielding possibility that the 40 tenants at 454 Bedford will have to celebrate Christmas with no cooking gas.

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According to lawyers and tenants rights activists, the situation at 454 Bedford isn’t new or isolated. They say there has been a history in New York of landlords pushing residents out by increasing rent through repairs, and not fixing violations. In general, they say, such cases are widespread around Williamsburg. As a result, some tenants take out a buyout offer because of housing conditions, Laine said.

About a mile and a half away from the 454 Bedford apartments, Teresa Ortiz said she has to sleep with a hood and four pairs of socks on to keep warm at 183 Maujer Street in Brooklyn.

Ortiz said the tenants were “living in a cloud of dust” after their landlord began illegal construction on their homes. “Then we lost our cooking gas, and now we have no heat,” she said. “It’s like a nightmare, one thing after another.”

According to 311, a tenant is supposed to have any heating gas problems fixed within 24 hours, but the process is never that fast. “The 24 hours is an aspirational goal,” Laine said. “183 Maujer hasn’t had actual heat since August.”

What can the tenants do to stop such tactics?

One possibility is a rent strike. “A rent strike is a really powerful tool to use against the landlord. The rents are pulled into an escrow association—tenant association account. The landlord suddenly gets freaked out because they are now having to pay out of their pocket,” Laine said.

The tenants at 454 Bedford are also demanding that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development expand the scope of its emergency repair program to restore cooking gas service when the landlord fails to do so, according to a Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A news release.

Additionally, the Bedford tenants are calling for improvements to the Department of Buildings permitting process, allowing the landlords to get work permits faster, so they can turn essential services on.

Grunwald is required to be in housing court on Dec. 13, but Laine is worried it could take a year for anything to be done. “We need our gas, these holidays are hitting us really hard,” Arroyo said. “It’s not fair.”

 

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