Tenacious Tenants Seek Solutions as Gas Outages Go On for Years

L to R, 206 Ninth Ave. tenants Peter Rinaldi, James Followell, Linda Amrani, Yanik Faylayev, and Saul Weitz. Their building has been without gas since May 2015. Photo by Scott Stiffler.

BY WINNIE McCROY | Forgoing the classic oven-roasted Thanksgiving turkey for a more manageable pan-sauteed chicken, Chelsea resident Jordan Lage set out to make his family’s holiday dinner last week using only a hot plate and a microwave oven. It’s not that they’re parsimonious; it’s just that they haven’t had cooking gas at their five-story apartment building since February 2016.

The situation at 311 W. 21st St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.) was outlined in a recent article that looked at NYC Management Corp., the company that took over the former Sidney Rubell property after a gas leak, and never bothered to restore the gas. Lage and his partner, Kelly Maurer, have lived in the building for nearly 19 years. But in the spring, when their 12-year-old daughter was injured and they realized they had no gas to cook her dinner, no hot water for a bath, and no heat, they finally said, “Enough.”

At 311 W. 21st St., the recent installation of pipe was a sign of progress. The building has been without gas since Feb. 2016. Photo by Jordan Lage.

A loosely formed coalition of renters came together to petition their elected officials, including City Councilmember Corey Johnson, to help restore their utilities. And after some stonewalling, the building owner finally agreed to meet with tenants to discuss the situation.

“Our office facilitated a meeting last Thursday [Nov. 9], and we made progress in addressing these issues, including plans for construction in the building, which tenants had not heard about, as well as when gas is going to be restored,” said Matt Green, the councilmember’s deputy chief of staff. “Our office is assisting in the city inspection with Con Edison and the Department of Buildings [DOB] to make sure the work the licensed plumber is doing is done correctly. The owners agreed to make sure they are communicating updates directly with the tenants. I think people felt good about the direction it went in.”

Lage said that they had “cautious optimism” about the meeting, which was “a long time in coming.”

“Given the circumstances, it is hard for us to be giddy with excitement,” said Maurer, “but there is some movement.”

They are also discussing rent abatement with the landlord, noted Lage, who added, “I think once they realized a New York City Councilman’s office was putting pressure on them, their lawyer advised them, ‘You guys should just do this.’ ”

But he’s still upset it took so long. “Once the pressure came to bear,” recalled Lage, “they said they could get the gas up and running in a just a little while. So why has nothing been done since they took over the building?”

As of the week after Thanksgiving, said Maurer, installation of pipes “has been completed from the cellar to the fifth floor” in some areas, but “there’s another section of the building where the piping has not been completed. We’ve been told we should probably have cooking gas within five months.” However, an inspector spoke with another tenant on Nov. 22, saying, noted Mauer, “that his estimate is that we would have gas probably within the next 12 to 18 months. Once Con Ed gets involved, it gets a little sticky.”

A COOK KEPT ON ICE | A few blocks away at another Sidney Rubell building, 206 Ninth Ave. (btw. W. 22nd & 23rd Sts.), avid cook Michael Harwood and his fellow tenants are experiencing a very similar situation.

Harwood moved into the building in 1981 with his partner, who later passed away from AIDS. Back then, Chelsea was a working-class neighborhood with bodegas, street crime — and not much else. In May 2015, after a 6 a.m. fire originating from a stove in the building’s street-level Asian eatery, the city required the landlord to bring the gas piping up to code before Con Edison could restore services.

That was 30 months ago, and the building still doesn’t have gas. Chelsea Cottage’s Viet Grill closed and never came back — but the Indian restaurant that now occupies its space enjoys the benefits of cooking with gas.

“In the fall of 2016, we heard the empty space had been rented. Construction began soon thereafter,” said Linda Amrani, another tenant in the building. “By the time they opened end of May/early June, they had gas. Since we had been told ever since they signed a lease [fall 2016], ‘We’re waiting for the restaurant construction,’ we were all outraged when they got gas and we didn’t. How did that happen?” asked Amrani.

Harwood noted that the situation has “been going on for so long that I’ve adapted to it, but at the same time, it’s ridiculous. I’ve devised a way to cook with a hot plate, microwave, and toaster oven. But obviously, I have no oven, so there’s no baking and no Thanksgiving turkey at all.”

He thinks back to the week that Hurricane Sandy left their building without power, recalling how having the stove to cook and to heat the apartment made it possible for him to shelter in place. “Now, every time I hear there’s a hurricane coming, I wonder, what will we do? The thing that’s so disturbing is the way we’ve been led on for months and months to believe we’ll be getting gas soon.”

In Michael Harwood’s kitchen at 206 Ninth Ave., the non-functioning gas stove is covered with a plywood panel to support his professional grade hot plate. Nearby, a microwave and toaster oven round out the makeshift cooking setup. Photo by Michael Harwood.

Stephen Cole, a writer who lives in the same building, explained that they have seen “a teeny bit of progress over the years, but last year we started calling 311 and things really started happening.”

“First, new gas pipes and lines were put in. Then there was a big rush about getting stoves. But four months later, those stoves are still just sitting around gathering dust,” said Cole. “When the gas plumber shows up, we keep getting told it’s the city’s fault for not inspecting us. We were even told at one point that there was no room in the basement for the meters. But I’ve been living here for 39 years, and of course there were meters in the basement before. It’s very fishy. Why has it been taking so long?”

The coup de grâce was realizing that the new street-level restaurant had gas. “There were no stopgaps for us,” said Cole. “We just bought hot plates and everything ourselves. It was always going to be just for a short while, and then it kept going and going.”

Amrani explained the holding pattern they’ve been in: “We call 311, Housing Preservation and Development comes out, expresses shock that the DOB hasn’t inspected it yet, says they’ll call them, then we never hear from them about what happened. No one can figure out why we can’t get an inspection.”

CUTTING THROUGH THE RED TAPE | This publication reached out to DOB to get to the bottom of things, and Senior Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Rudansky outlined the particulars of this situation — as well as how things are supposed to work in these circumstances.

Rudansky said that back in June, licensed master plumber Harris Scott Rosen of Triple Crown Plumbing filled out permits to restore the gas. DOB showed up right away to do the inspection.

“But the plumber said, ‘Never mind, I’m not ready, I don’t want you to inspect it.’ So that’s an automatic fail for not inspecting it. And that’s the last time we had heard from the plumber,” recalled Rudanksy. “Basically as of right now, our entire team is aware of this problem, and as soon as we get the request to inspect the finished work, we can be there in an hour.”

The DOB said that any time a plumber requests an inspection, they will be there within 24 hours, for properties across all boroughs. Assuming the work is done correctly and the system is safe, they will grant the gas authorization, which the plumber then takes to the local utility — in this case, Con Edison — who can restore the gas.

Amrani’s husband, Saul Weitz, said he spoke to Rosen and pressed him for a case number to follow up with the DOB. “He said he was out working and didn’t have it on him, but then the next day he wouldn’t answer my calls,” noted Weitz. “He has been saying that he had to do a gas integrity test, then let the DOB in to inspect it, and then if it’s okay they’ll give authorization. He claims it will take two weeks because of Thanksgiving.”

Over at Councilmember Johnson’s office, Green reached out to Sidney Rubell’s daughter, Elaine Gorlechen, who now owns many of his properties, as well as the plumber, to get the DOB case number.

“They said that new meter bars had recently been installed and the plumber was testing them, and would then schedule an inspection to turn it on,” said Green. “We are working with DOB and Con Ed to expedite this.”

Shortly after, Rudansky called this publication to say the plumber had contacted DOB to “let us know he intends to request an inspection, although he hasn’t yet. He said it should happen shortly.”
When Rosen was contacted last week, he said, “I am setting up for the gas test and then I’ll put in to get it tested. This week, I don’t know — I’ll try to do some of the work tomorrow and Wednesday, but we should have it all done by the end of next week. Then I’ll set it up. We’re down to the final stretch now; it sure took long enough.”

Some of the tenants at 336 W. 17th St., where the building has been without gas for nearly 30 months. Top row, L to R: Craig Roseberry and Danny Quinones. Bottom row, L to R: John Martin Gutenkauf and Calder Kusmierski Singer. Photo by Scott Stiffler.

LACK OF UTILITES PART OF ‘HARASSMENT BY NEGLECT’ | Seeing these cooking gas problems get resolved has given some hope to Calder Kusmierski Singer, a tenant at 336 W. 17th St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves). Like 311 W. 21st St., this 15-unit apartment building was formerly owned by Sidney Rubell Company. Although Singer has only resided in the building since March 2016, he said the building has also been without gas for nearly 30 months.

“It was more of the same with no cooking gas, but now it has gotten much worse,” said Singer. “The heat and hot water drop out at least twice a week. Every single non-stabilized tenant lease is not renewed, so the building is half-empty.”

Singer said that the intercom and buzzer don’t work correctly, and the hallway lights are often burnt out. He has seen break-ins and mail theft, and is concerned that the basement door is always open, with strangers wandering in and out. He called the pattern “harassment by neglect.”

But the last straw came on Sept. 23, when Singer said the super flung open the front door so hard he hit a 90-year-old neighbor in the head, then left the scene without calling anyone to help.

“We called management and they never got back to us. That was the tipping point,” said Singer. “Despite having the hot water and heat go off, it took us opening a harassment case against the landlord to get the ball rolling.”

Singer said they’ve filed a case with the Division of Housing & Community Renewal (DHCR), which handles situations with rent-regulated apartments. He also said HPD has filed their own case against the landlord, which went to court right before Thanksgiving.

“Two days before our court case, the landlord offered us a rent abatement until the services are restored, with the rent credits backdated,” said Singer. “We are asking for more, because this doesn’t make up for the money we have spent on eating out, and the inconvenience of not having a proper kitchen.”

Ironically, when he signed his lease, Singer said the landlord charged a $50 increase for the installation of a new stove, which “I’ve been paying for ever since, even though it’s basically just an expensive countertop.”

He said tenants have asked for a higher abatement through their lawyer, Brenden Ross (a staff attorney at Mobilization for Justice), as well as an agreement that they will no longer have to deal with harassment, and will be given a deadline for essential services being restored.

Calder Kusmierski Singer’s stove serves only as a countertop for his induction plate and cast iron pan. A toaster oven, microwave, and hot water kettle also compensate for the building’s lack of gas. Photo by Scott Stiffler.

Singer, who grew up in the city, remembers his family fighting similar battles in the ’80s, and winning protections under the Loft Law.

“My parents had to fight for their place before I was even born. I’m a second-generation housing activist,” said Singer. “But for me, I’m just lucky my family is in the city, so I can go there for Thanksgiving. Here, I can’t host dinner. I can’t cook it on an induction plate.”

According to Green, the legal cases may have hastened gas restoration in this building. He said the owner’s lawyer said the repairs would be finished by the end of November. The plumber will then submit an inspection request for DOB, so Con Edison can restore the gas.

“This group of tenants have organized, have filed a group rent reduction request with DHCR, and have had a harassment hearing held,” said Green. “The next steps are calling for a meeting with Con Ed and the DOB to discuss long-term gas outages. Our priority here is to get gas restored safely and quickly. Why does it take a year and a half or two years to get to where we are? We want to make sure the city is doing everything possible to get this done in cases where people are without cooking gas for a long time. Especially around the holiday season, when people are cooking big meals, having gas out for this long is completely unacceptable.”