The Legal Aid Society has issued an ultimatum to the New York City Housing Authority: Give rent abatements to tenants who were without heat during a recent cold snap, or face litigation.
The nonprofit, which provides legal services to low-income New Yorkers, said NYCHA did not issue refunds to tenants who didn’t have heat or hot water between Dec. 27, 2017, and Jan. 16, 2018, when the temperature dipped dangerously low for several consecutive days.
“Between late December and early January of this year, New York City experienced record-breaking, devastating cold weather conditions — with the most number of days in a row 32 degrees or lower since 1961,” Lucy Newman, staff attorney of the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society, wrote in the letter to NYCHA chairwoman Shola Olatoye dated Feb. 9. “In the middle of this prolonged freeze, tens of thousands of NYCHA households experienced heat outages and/or hot water outages . . . residents were forced to endure the cold by layering clothes and blankets, and dangerously, turning on ovens and stoves as a source of heat.”
According to the city’s Housing Maintenance Code, NYCHA must provide heat between Oct. 1 and May 31. If the temperature dips below 55 degrees between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., units should be heated to a minimum of 68 degrees, the Legal Aid Society said. If the temperature goes down to 50 degrees, apartments need to be at least 55 degrees.
The organization also pointed to rent abatements that NYCHA provided to tenants after superstorm Sandy, when many developments sustained damage to electrical, heating and hot water systems.
“It’s really quite simple: The city is required by law to provide these utilities. When that obligation is broken, there are consequences,” Newman said in a news release on Monday. “Despite what the mayor claims, NYCHA tenants are not second-class citizens; they’re afforded the same rights and protections tenants in other residencies enjoy. City Hall must do the right thing and make these tenants whole by refunding rents for when their homes were uninhabitable.”
NYCHA said that since Oct. 1, the average heating outage was fixed within 48 hours.
“We understand how hard this winter has been on many of our residents,” acting NYCHA press secretary Jasmine Blake said in response to the Legal Aid Society’s letter on Monday. “Our focus is on fixing the underlying problems and upgrading our heating equipment as fast as possible to prevent future outages and that’s where we’re devoting every resource we have.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Jan. 31 that $200 million would be put toward replacing the boiler systems at NYCHA buildings, acknowledging that the below-freezing temperatures earlier this winter had “hit these aging boilers and pipes hard.”
In January, city Comptroller Scott Stringer said he would audit NYCHA’s boiler systems, citing “widespread reports of heating outages” at more than 30 developments across the city.