By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — They walk around their apartments in winter hats and coats because there is no heat. They boil water to wash their children because there is no hot water.
But residents at a tenement building at 21 East 115th St., just off of Madison Avenue, say they've had enough. They took to the street in front of the building with pots and pans Tuesday to protest the horrible living conditions they say are making them physically ill.
Dozens of residents also joined Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a nonprofit advocacy group, in filing a lawsuit against the landlord and the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for ignoring their concerns.
"It's so cold. The kids can't bathe. They can't concentrate on their homework because its so cold," said Judelia Nicolas, 25, who has lived in her fifth floor walk-up for seven years with her family, including four kids. "The kids just say they want to go to someplace warm."
HPD records show there are 203 open violations at the building, including everything from bathrooms in disrepair to a lack of heat and hot water.
Inside her third floor apartment, Eufemia Mendoza keeps two pots of boiling water on her stove to warm the apartment and for bathing. Kids stayed under two blankets in the bed and adults had on winter hats and coats.
"We haven't had heat and hot water for 14 days. One of my children has asthma and with the cold it has gotten worse," Mendoza said. "We repeatedly call the landlord and he doesn't do anything. We call HPD and they ignore us."
Both Nicolas and Mendoza pay more than $2,000 per month for their four bedroom apartments. Nicolas says her rent is $2,107 per month and Mendoza says she pays $2,327.33 per month.
"We pay so much and we get nothing," said Nicolas.
Ramon Santos, listed on HPD records as the landlord along with Antonio de Los Santos, said he and the other landlord are currently working to replace the boiler, but that they are doing it in phases. He said many of the 203 open violations have been addressed and they are waiting for an HPD inspection.
"We fix the boiler, it breaks down. That's why we are in the process of changing it out in five sections," said Ramos who has owned the building for a decade. "They can say whatever they want but the apartments are in good condition. Nothing is perfect."
HPD did not return a call for comment.
Candy Vazquez, executive director of the 116th Street Block Association, said there have been problems at this building every winter for the past several years.
"They rent out mainly to immigrants because they figure they won't say anything. In the past, people just move out because they are fed up with the conditions," said Vazquez.
Juan Haro, coordinator for Movement in Justice in El Barrio, accused the landlord at 21 East 115th Street and other buildings throughout East Harlem of letting the buildings deteriorate so that tenants are forced to move and they can increase the rent by performing minor renovations.
"This is a major problem in East Harlem but these tenants have decided not to move out but to fight and stay," said Haro.
Santos denied the charge.
"We are working on all the apartments. It's not like the building is falling apart," he said.
Residents also say they felt abandoned by HPD. Despite not having heat or hot water for two weeks, they claim they have not received a visit from an HPD inspector.
That, said Isabel Cano, 21, has made her lose hope. She has taken her 9-month-old son Jonathan to the hospital four times in the last month because of a fever and coughing.
"The doctors say it's the cold that's making him sick but nothing has changed," Cano said.