LES Residents Still Without Power and Heat Threaten Rent Strike

By Serena Solomon on November 13, 2012 6:36am 

LOWER EAST SIDE — After two weeks of no gas, running water or electricity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, fed-up residents at a 1,600-plus-unit housing complex are calling for a break in rent to make up for the lack of livable conditions.

Many of the residents of Knickerbocker Village — comprised of a dozen 13-story towers of privately owned affordable housing sandwiched between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges — have been left in the dark and cold since the storm flooded its boiler and electrical wiring in 25 feet of water, workers said.

Now the tenants, upset about paying rent to a management company they claim failed to provide basic services and communicate with them throughout the ongoing ordeal, say they will be exploring legal avenues to get a break in their rent payments.

"They want us to pay rent? How do I pay rent if we are getting no services?" Miss Wan, a Knickerbocker resident of 14 years, said at a tenant meeting organized Saturday to discuss withholding rent.

The resident, who declined to provide her full name because she works in the city comptroller's office, exhibited just how bad the situation has been.

"This is how I go to bed at night," said Wan, pointing to a knee-length coat she wore to the outdoor meeting. 

Other residents said last week that they were already planning to wage their own rent strike.

"I'm going to take that bit out of the rent, and if they want to sue me I will gladly go to court," said 23-year Knickerbocker Village resident Kenneth Lee, of his plan to pro-rate his rent based on the number of days spent without utilities.

"I have no heat, no hot water — that's uninhabitable," Lee added of the complex, where a one-bedroom apartment rents for as little as $600 a month, according to its website.

As of Monday afternoon, 900 units in the complex had power, but all of them still lacked heat, according to the management company. 

Residents at Saturday's tenant meeting shouted and held signs, urging fellow residents to band together to force the complex's management company, Knickerbocker Village, Inc., and its owner, AREA Property Partners, to do more to provide for the tenants' immediate needs, such as supplying generators and heaters.

They also called for a rent break or refund for their time spent without vital services, including mail delivery.

The complex, comprised of city-sponsored rentals for middle-income earners known as Mitchell-Lama housing, was unable to accept services from Con Edison as of last Monday due to the flooding, Con Ed spokesman Allan Drury said. A week later, the utility was still waiting for repairs to be done on the complex's end before it could restore power to all the buildings, a spokesman said.

Keisha Hogans, a tenant organizer at Saturday's meeting, said residents had thrown around the idea of withholding rent, but she advised them not to act until they had received legal advice as a group.

"That is why we are organizing, to see what we can do," said Hogans, who has lived in the complex since 1996.  

Another tenant organizer, Isabel Reyna-Torres, said she was reaching out to MFY New York, which could offer the group free legal services.

"It was only after contacting local politicians and after setting up this meeting that we heard from management," she said Reyna-Torres, adding that management should have informed residents of storm-recovery updates as diligently as they notify tenants of rent increases.

Knickerbocker Village, Inc. representatives said in a statement its staff had been working around the clock to restore services and that it was looking into the issue of rent abatement. As of Saturday, limited services had returned to some residents.

Harvey Epstein of the nonprofit advocacy group Urban Justice Center, which also provides free legal services, said that in certain situations tenants living in homes without gas, power or running water because of natural disasters do have a legal leg to stand on when it comes to getting a rent break.

"Tenants have a right to basic conditions being maintained," he said, pointing to the Warranty of Habitability law, which states that residents have the right to a "livable, safe and sanitary apartment" as a part of every legal lease agreement in the city.

Epstein said a tenant's access to this law would depend on how diligent a landlord was in repairing damage done by the hurricane and if the building was properly prepared in the first place.

Tenants of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village have already been given a rent break by the mega-complex's owner, CWCapital, for time spent living without electricity, heat and elevators, according to the Local East Village.

Tenants always have a right to withhold their rent, but they need to have a defense prepared if a landlord decides to sue, Epstein said.

"Tenants need to organize with their neighbors and they need to complain together," he explained. "Having an organizer in place is always valuable."

Steve Herrick, the executive director for the housing advocacy group Cooper Square Committee, said if a rent issue arrives in court, judges are more favorable to groups who attempt negotiations with landlords first.

"Rent strikes are just one of many tactical options tenant associations have, and their effectiveness depends a lot on what actions the tenant leaders take before going that route," he wrote in an email.

Carlina Rivera, program manager for the senior program at another local housing advocacy group, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), advised tenants to pay rent first and seek a refund later.

"We don't recommend that tenants take it upon themselves to withhold their rent," she said.

Numerous NYCHA residents, those in affected rent-stabilized apartments and others in the Haven Plaza complex on East 12th Street, which saw residents transporting buckets of water to darkened apartments for days, have also begun to question whether they should withhold their rents, Rivera added.

Elected officials, including Councilwoman Margaret Chin and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, declined to directly advise Knickerbocker Village tenants, but have organized a public meeting for them at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the nearby P.S. 1.

"We do encourage management companies that they should do the right thing to not charge people rent for the time they were without," said Chin, a longtime tenants-rights advocate, of how she is dealing with the rent issue at Knickerbocker Village and other buildings like it.

John Ragall, a Knickerbocker resident for the past 30 years, said he told his wife last week that a rent break would be a welcome gesture from the complex after the drawn-out ordeal.    

"It is taking so long and people are getting angry," he said. "Especially when you look across the street and they have power and you don't."

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