out of gas investigation

| 01 Mar 2016 | 01:05

Ruby Mak has been spending more money on takeout than a doctorate student mid-dissertation, and her new rice cooker is working at least as hard.

“A lot of it is just out of pocket, going out to eat a lot more,” said Mak. “When we cook at home it's just a rice cooker. You can steam things with it, or make rice, basically.”

Last September her building joined hundreds of others across the city with no natural gas, cut off by Con Edison after an inspection blitz by the city's Dept. of Buildings that began last April, less than a month after a fatal gas explosion in the East Village that claimed two lives.

According to statistics provided by the DOB, ConEd reported 343 shutoffs to the agency in 2015, a 400 percent increase over 2014's 67 shutoffs. And the upward trend appears to be increasing even more: So far in 2016 there have been 157 shutoffs, according to the DOB.

“Since the spring of last year we started noticing a lot of people coming in that had no gas, either cooking gas or heat and hot water,” said Donna Chiu, director of housing and community services for Asian Americans For Equality.

Chiu called the increase “freakish,” and said AAFE is working with Mak's building and almost a dozen others in Chinatown and the Lower East Side to restore services. And Chiu, like many housing advocates, has witnessed a pattern of exploitation by building owners who prolong service interruptions in an effort to pressure rent-stabilized tenants into leaving their apartments.

The dozen or so residents in Mak's building, at 53 Ludlow Street, brought a Housing Part action in court - or HP in housing parlance, the part of the law used to force a landlord to make repairs or mitigate a loss of services. Under a settlement, landlord Sky Management will provide a $100/month rent abatement retroactive to Sept. 21 of last year, when the outage occurred. The landlord must also provide hot plates for tenants.

Joel Cullotta of Sky Management said the building's gas infrastructure was simply outdated.

“The piping for the cooking gas was just very old,” said Cullotta, who added that it made more sense for the building to convert to electric from natural cooking gas, which became part of the settlement in the Housing Part case. “It would need to be replaced, and it made more sense to convert to electric.”

Cullotta also defended Sky's handling of the shutoff, and said that they're waiting on ConEd to install electric meters in the building's basement.

“We worked immediately to restore the gas and heat as soon as we could,” said Cullotta, noting that the Sept. 21 outage affected the heat and hot water gas system as well, which Sky was able to restore in three days.

Cullotta would not comment on whether Sky was offering buyouts or making an effort to get existing rent stabilized tenants out of the building. He acknowledged installing 13 surveillance cameras in the building, but said “we've done that in most of our properties.”

Despite the hardships, Chiu said the situation at 53 Ludlow Street is one of the brighter spots in their gas shutoff caseload.

“At least at 53 Ludlow there's been some progress,” she said concerning the HP settlement.

That's not always the case. Housing lawyers and tenant activists throughout Manhattan confirmed over and over again the same trend of building owners opportunistically prolonging gas shutoffs to pressure rent stabilized tenants into leaving their apartments.

“I've got a couple tenants who haven't had gas for months and months, and one of them in particular has a stack of receipts that's pretty dramatic from having to go out and buy food in the neighborhood,” said Evan Hasbrook, a housing lawyer with the Legal Aid Society. “She can't afford this.”

In his experience, said Hasbrook, the fault lies with the building owner despite their protestations to the contrary.

“In these cases the landlord has the legal responsibility to provide cooking gas and heating and the rest,” he said. “But you end up in housing court and the landlord says either that ConEd is dragging its feet … or that the tenant is not providing access to ConEd or the landlord. They try to pass the blame wherever they can and make an excuse, but legally it's pretty clear this all falls on the landlord.”

Chiu of AAFE agreed that the blame game is a favorite pastime between ConEd and building owners. In housing court, she said, a landlord's lawyer often claims, “'Oh it's Con Edison, we've tried everything,' so that is a story we hear all the time.”

Betsy Eichel, a tenant organizer with Housing Conservation Coordinators, said in addition to landlords prolonging the process, there's a lack of qualified plumbers to perform and certify necessary repairs from all the shutoffs.

“I definitely noticed an uptick in gas outages after the East Village explosion,” said Eichel. “However, the quickness to turn the gas off also leads to the long outages; there's not enough licensed plumbers to keep up with the number of buildings without gas, so a backlog is inevitable.”

Eichel said landlords are supposed to provide hot plates, but in her experience they either don't or won't without prodding from tenants. “We usually try to negotiate a rent abatement,” she said. “Some tenants will keep their receipts and try to get some compensation in Small Claims Court, but that isn't as efficient as a rent abatement.”

She also agreed with colleagues at other organizations that prolonged shutoffs can be used as a “tool” to harass rent stabilized tenants.

“I don't think any of the landlords in buildings where I work shut off gas on purpose, but they didn't rush to turn it back on,” said Eichel. “In addition, the one thing that all the buildings I work in without gas had in common was that the outage happened amid construction; their landlords were renovating vacant units which would be rented at market rate.”

Sam Himmelstein, a housing lawyer with the tenant-only firm of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, said Eichel's assessment is accurate.

“Whether you call it deliberate harassment or benign neglect, the landlord says they'll turn the gas on when the work is completed,” said Himmelstein, of the cases he sees.

Himmelstein said his firm typically negotiates from the landlord a voluntary rent abatement of 10 to 25 percent the monthly rent, but in order for the landlord to do anything, in his experience, they must be taken to court.

“The thing I have to emphasize is that unless you bring them to court they're going to drag their feet,” he said.

Brandon Kielbasa, director of organizing and policy at the Cooper Square Committee, is seeing the same thing Himmelstein is.

“We've seen a huge uptick,” he said. “Many of the buildings are those that have recently had major gut renovation construction occur in them. Many of the buildings are owned by aggressive, bad acting landlords.”

Kielbasa said cooking gas disruptions are a “huge disturbance” for tenants that are left without the means to prepare meals at home, and emphasized that tenants who organize tend to get gas restored much sooner than those that don't.

“So, we usually urge all tenants facing cooking gas issues to quickly initiate a HP action in housing court to get gas restored,” said Kielbasa. “From our experience a housing court case is essential to open the lines of communication with a bad acting landlord and to also start putting pressure on the landlord to restore the gas in a timely way.”

And few would argue with the DOB's overabundance of caution concerning gas leaks, and the disasters that rarely, but tragically, accompany them. The East Village explosion that occurred on March 26 of last year claimed two lives, and followed a March 2014 gas explosion in East Harlem that claimed eight lives.

But in less than a week of reporting this story, this newspaper was approached by no fewer than four advocacy organizations, one elected official's office, and a number of housing lawyers who were eager to talk about the issue of skyrocketing gas shutoffs and how the city's less scrupulous landlords are exploiting the situation.

All told, in three days we were informed of over 20 buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn comprising hundreds of units – many of which are rent stabilized and occupied by tenants on fixed incomes - that are enduring gas shutoff conditions.

The DOB's own statistics illustrate the drastic increase: 67 shutoffs in 2014, 343 in 2015, and 157 in January and February of this year. The agency is inspecting five times as many buildings for faulty or illegal gas hookups than before the East Village explosion last March.