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Illegal Gas Hookups in Uptown Buildings Were 'Time Bomb,' Councilman Says

By Lindsay Armstrong | May 15, 2015 6:24pm | Updated on May 18, 2015 8:55am
 Councilman Mark Levine, along with tenants and community leaders, pushed for safeguards to prevent illegal gas hookups like the one at 600 W. 161st St.
Councilman Mark Levine, along with tenants and community leaders, pushed for safeguards to prevent illegal gas hookups like the one at 600 W. 161st St.
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DNAinfo/Lindsay Armstrong

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — A handful of Uptown buildings with illegal gas hookups run by a single management company were "time bomb[s]," according to a city councilman.

City Councilman Mark Levine gathered with tenants in front of 600 W. 161st St., one of the affected buildings, on Friday morning to demand action from Alma Realty, which was recently found by Con Edison to have eight buildings with illegal gas hookups in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx.

“[We] demand action in the face of irresponsible and dangerous behavior by Alma Realty, who installed in this building an illegal hookup that was stealing gas and, more importantly, was a time bomb,” Levine said.

The discovery came a little more than a month after two people were killed when an East Village building exploded due to what investigators believe was an illegal gas hookup.

Yolette Massillon, who has lived in the West 161st Street building for 41 years, said she started to smell gas some time last year. After repeatedly calling her landlord and 311 to complain, Massillon called Con Ed and asked the utility to send out an inspector.

“He told me the gas smell was coming from one particular pipe,” she said. “He said it was very old and needed to be replaced.”

Con Ed shut off the building’s gas line, which feeds the laundry room and the super’s apartment, about two weeks ago after getting a tip about the gas. The landlord could face penalties as a result, including fines, after the city has a chance to review the violations.

Massillon was surprised when she learned that she had been living in a potentially deadly situation for so long.

“My reaction was, ‘Oh my God. Are you serious?’” she said. “What could have happened to my children, me, my neighbors?”

Levine called on Con Ed and city officials to inspect the other properties owned by Alma, saying the landlord had a history of violations.

“They recently were awarded an upzoning in Queens to build a massive development,” Levine said. “The city should be alarmed that a landlord with 10,000 units is committing such a gross act of negligence as illegal gas hookups in multiple buildings.”

The seven other buildings found to have unauthorized gas lines were 701 W. 175th St, 534 W. 178th St., 566 W. 190th St., 4455 Broadway, 9-23 Thayer St., 14-15 Bristow St. and 853 Elsmere St. Officials said the gas had been turned off at those properties.

Tom Butler, a spokesman for Alma Realty, said the landlord was working with Con Ed and the city to make the proper repairs.

When asked why Alma had multiple buildings with the issue, Butler said that many of the conditions pre-dated Alma’s ownership.

“We typically take over buildings that were in foreclosure so they are not always in best of shape,” Butler said. “Often there were modifications done to these buildings 40 or 50 years ago that were not permitted.”

Butler said Alma purchased the 161st Street building in 2012 and that it takes time to make sure the repairs are done correctly.

According to a recent report by DNAinfo New York, Con Ed discovered 150 illegal gas setups among its 1.1 million customers in 2014, a number that Levine said strains credulity.

He called on Con Ed to be more aggressive in how it addresses illegal hookups, saying it should not just be left up to tips from the public.

Levine also pushed for the passage of Intro 738, a bill he and Councilwoman Liz Crowley co-sponsored shortly after the gas explosion in East Harlem last year.

The law would create new training and licensing requirements for plumbers who wish to do gas-line repairs. Levine noted that some illegal hookups involve little more than a hose running across a basement floor. He said that creating higher standards for people doing this potentially dangerous work could help correct some of the worst offenses.

"This is extremely high stakes work. It’s complicated work,” Levine said. “We want people who know what they are doing.”

A spokesman for Con Edison said the agency is willing to work with the city to strengthen oversight of gas plumbing work.