Apartment #23 – ChatterStory January 2014
I have spent the past six months of my life dealing with finally rectifying the unacceptable conditions in my apartment, taking my landlord to court, and then living through the actual renovations, which if I’m honest, I’m still reeling from. For those of you who know me well, you have perhaps some idea as to just how many years I have had recurring damp in my walls. And for those of you that don’t know – it makes a pretty good story – and I have the pictures to prove it! Lots of them… so this is but a few… This story may appear to be long, but it spans several years, so bear with me, and enjoy the read!
It’s hard to explain to someone who has not been through something similar, just how draining, time consuming, and totally overwhelming this kind of crusade can be. It literally takes over your entire life. But as my friend says, “If you work the system, the system will work for you.” And it did. I didn’t hire expensive lawyers, I simply filed my complaint down at the courts for $45, after which a city HPD Department of Housing Preservation & Development Inspector was scheduled to inspect my apartment and I was given a court date.
I happen to be a “copious note taker” (surprise, surprise) so besides shooting a lot of photographs over the years, I have also recorded everything that has gone on in my apartment and the building (you have to) in what I call my “Timeline Document.” Sure, I invested a lot (as in a lot) of my time and energy doing that, as well as obtaining free legal advice and researching all of my options, but in the end it was worth it. By the time my landlord was ordered by the judge to make the proper repairs, he/they ended up having to spend a whole lot more money on the renovations than if he had simply done the right thing in the first place. Go on – ask me if I care? So instead of the usual painting and plastering job that tenants are entitled to every couple of years, I ended up getting a whole new place – new walls, new ceiling, new electrics, new bamboo floor…
The problems first surfaced back in 2005 when the north walls of my bedroom and living room began showing serious signs of damp, peeling paint and crumbling plaster. It had been a while since they had painted my apartment, but this time they ended up doing such a lousy job the damp came right back through again the very next day! All they had done was slap some paint and plaster on the walls – they hadn’t even treated them for the damp! I refused to have the same contractor back again, so one of the super’s guys came instead and did a much better job! Everything was fine, for a while… but gradually the damp patches started to reappear. It was more evident in the bedroom because the living room wall was conveniently obscured by my bookshelves and desk. So each time the damp resurfaced in the bedroom they would come in and patch it up. And each time it would be okay for a little while, but then, without fail, the damp would always return.
This went on for several years but by 2010 it was so bad, my bedroom smelled so badly of mold I could not even sleep in there due to the unhealthy conditions. My former super was doing some work in my kitchen that summer and confirmed there was no point in applying any more Band-Aids to the inside walls until something was done about the outside of the building – because we ALL knew the reason for the recurring damp was coming from the exterior, but the landlord and the management company simply didn’t want to address that – not until I called HPD, that is. However, shortly after my conversation with him, I had to go to England because my father was dying. This was not only a tough time due to the apartment situation, but my mother had died in 2009 so I was still processing all of that. I resumed my apartment fight again in early 2011, and that was when I called HPD.
When HPD witnessed the above steam pipe and cracked ceiling in the kitchen September 2013 (looking pretty much the same as it had in January), the inspector deemed it to be not simply a “violation” but an “emergency repair” that had to be fixed before we even went to court! But when I had previously asked the contractor if it was safe, he had brushed it aside saying it was fine! The irony is that the same corner ended up being completely redone all over again for a second time after we had been to court when they then proceeded to renovate the front room and had to open up the entire ceiling!
Once my complaint(s) were on record and registered with the city, what were once “conditions” now became “violations” and my landlord was obligated to fix (the outside of) the building(s). I also noticed that when you refer to something as a “health hazard” people start to pay attention. I even mentioned in one of my many letters to the management company that our landlord was apparently willing to make thousands of dollars every month by renting the roof space to the mobile phone companies, but he was not willing to spend any of that money on fixing it! We not only have those cell phone towers on the edges of our roof people – we have massive “cell phone stations” up there as well, so you know the landlord makes a lot of money every month renting that space to them. I think maybe that got their attention as well.
They say, “Be careful what you ask for” right? So my asking (okay demanding) to have the necessary repairs made to eliminate the damp in my apartment had now turned into a massive and much larger project that involved exterior repairs to all five buildings (not just my little section where the damp was the worst) all of which ending up taking several more years! Adding insult to injury, the work didn’t even begin on my building – instead it started on the two buildings behind us while we watched and endured many months of drilling, dirt, noise and disruption. Whereas with our three buildings, there were a whole bunch of delays, including problems with permits and at one point a complete change of contractors, so it wasn’t until the following year that they even began the repairs on my building.
Now once they had started to take steps to work on the outside of the building(s), I backed off and didn’t take them to court at that time. I gave them the benefit of the doubt – silly me! I also did not want any more “temporary” renovations done in my apartment until the exterior work was finished, so I (along with all the rest of the tenants) waited patiently while they “supposedly” made all of the necessary repairs. They were here for close to a couple of years re-building the entire roof, replacing the front parapet of all three buildings, removing asbestos (great!), knocking out our cable every other day, the drilling, the dirt, the noise, on and on and on… and all that time we waited patiently.
At one point, our entire building was without gas for three months because someone turned the gas off in our basement, which then caused Con-Edison to automatically shut our building down. And this wasn’t even one of the roofers, he was a contractor from one of those phone companies I told you about that our landlord rents the roof space to, so you can imagine how popular he was! While we had no gas, the tenants were supplied with what had to be a “job lot” of cheap electric hotplates to cook on, which turned out to be pretty useless, or in some cases were simply dangerous because they gave you electric shocks!
Fast forward to early 2013 and the exterior work is winding down, at last. The contractors take the scaffold down and remove their equipment (yeah!) and I schedule for my apartment to be renovated. I go back and forth with the management company and the contractor for several months and then finally I pack up the entire contents of my bedroom in June, moving everything into my already full front room (not only is it my living room, it also my kitchen and my office) where I then proceeded to “camp” not for what should have been a few weeks, but instead turned into several months…
Remember, I had waited for this moment for a very long time, nine years in fact, not just since 2010, so when they finished painting my bedroom in July of 2013 and the damp came right back through the walls again – that was it! Enough was enough. No more “Mrs. Nice Guy.” No more “Miss Ever So Patient.” “Oh please don’t call HPD again, “ they said to me, to which I replied, “If you had the exact same violations in your apartment that you had three years ago when you called HPD the first time, wouldn’t you be calling them again? You told me the work was all done, but how “done” could they possibly have been if I still have damp in my walls?” All that waiting had been for naught. At the end of the day the repairs that had been made to all five buildings failed to actually remedy “my” damp situation – the one person who had forced them to even do the work in the first place – fan-bloody-tastic!
I then spent the rest of my summer and early fall camping out in my living room, whilst continuing to sleep on my beat up sofa bed, which was not exactly the best for my poor old back. In the meantime, there were more inspections and engineers, and finally the roofers returned and proceeded to work feverishly on the outside of the building. They set up their equipment and scaffold all over again, this time focusing on my section first (dam right!) and proceeded to spend at least two full weeks on masonry work, replacing the windowsill and all of the bricks around my bedroom window. Remember, we had been told me the work was finished, which is why I even scheduled for my place to finally be renovated – so how entirely finished could they possibly have been if they were now spending another two-plus weeks on my little section alone?
They knew it had to be right this time because now it was on record and we had a court date! They worked so frantically that one day, they were here until after 8 o’clock at night, drilling in the pitch dark! Not only was that extremely dangerous (and pretty pointless, since they couldn’t see), it was also illegal! Yet more phone calls and notes for the Timeline Document…It’s all a game – make sure the front of the building looks great, but skimp on the side towards the rear that is not visible from Sixth Avenue! Do just enough to pass inspection, and only do the right thing if ordered to by the judge!
And so, on October 1, 2013 we went to court. I was there representing myself, with my friend (and mentor) for moral support. The landlord meanwhile, had sent four people to speak against me (how many do you need?) – three people from the management company and a suitably obnoxious attorney. Unfortunately, in HPD court the Judge cannot consider the “history” of the violations, his/her job is to simply make sure they are remedied within a reasonable period of time. I’m sure that my Judge could see that these people were full of “you-know-what” but she simply ordered the violations to be fixed, set a schedule and wished me luck! I asked if I could be relocated during the renovations, because I knew they were going to have to go right down to the brick this time and the dust was going to be horrendous. However, my violations were not sufficiently egregious for that to happen, thus I lived through the entire thing, and boy, did my sinuses suffer big time!
First thing was to have the contractor come back and re-do the bedroom wall, which had been sitting waiting since July, and then I literally had to pack up everything in the living room/kitchen/office and put as much of it as I possibly could in the bedroom. That was a huge task. The sofa got thrown out! It’s one thing for your place to be renovated, but when you have to move all of your belongings into one small room and continue to live in it at the same time while they work on the other room, and then switch rooms back again (more than once), it is very, very challenging, let me tell you! So living through those weeks and months of seriously major renovations was intense – day after day of demolition, dust and debris. But the irony is, and this is where it gets good, each time they started to work on a section or a particular wall, it opened up a veritable can of worms! What could have been an easier fix all those years ago had turned into a veritable nightmare…
If they touched a wall, it pretty much fell down by itself, as did the ceiling, And then the open ceiling revealed some illegal wiring, so the electrician had to be brought in to work on that. When the floor guy came, he literally laughed at the notion of “patching” my beat up old floor, so he and my contractor reassured the management company that the easiest and most cost-efficient solution was to simply lay a new floor on top of the old one. So yes, I got a beautiful new bamboo floor out of it as well, which I wasn’t even expecting! Unfortunately, they wouldn’t go so far as to “level” the floors, and my furniture and appliances still have wedges under them, but then, we can’t have everything, can we?
Each morning they would wrap up my kitchen and cover my doorways in plastic, and at the end of every day they would unwrap it again so I could get to my refrigerator and make a cup of tea! I would watch a little TV each evening, sitting on my desk chair in the middle of the building site. I cannot tell you how blissful it is to no longer have a mouse problem. To be able to leave a bag of chips out on my kitchen counter without worrying, to not have to deal with killing them and those nasty traps… in fact, when they did fix my floors and walls and essentially eliminated all of the holes, my mice all migrated next door to my elderly neighbor! Needless to say, she wasn’t too thrilled – she caught four mice in one day, and I have photos of that too!
I took photos every single day and kept adding to my notes as the worked progressed. Those pictures tell the tale all by themselves. I thought I would do a lot of reading, and even do some work whilst I was camping up on my loft bed and they were demolishing my front room. But those aspirations soon dissipated, and some days all I could do was simply lay there and rest. I did play a lot of Solitaire on my iPad though, plus I had to keep and eye on what was being done, otherwise it wouldn’t all get done, or at least, not properly. Ironically (or not) the two main guys who worked on my place were both born under the sign of Capricorn (one is right on the cusp of Sagittarius and Capricorn but it was close enough for me!) And, in my January 2014 ChatterLog, you will notice the theme is Structure and Buildings– so who better to “rebuild” the “structure” of my home than two Capricorns?
And finally, I want to give a shout-out to a few people who have helped me through this entire ordeal – a bit like an Oscar acceptance speech only this would be for a Perseverance Award… First of all to my rock James, who pushed me to stand up and fight for my rights in the first place, and to take this battle on. Actually, he said he wouldn’t ever talk to me again if I didn’t take these people to court and start withholding my rent (that always gets their attention and the prospect of James not talking to me got mine!) Now this is someone who grew up marching in the 60’s fighting for civil rights, whereas I grew up in a small village in “Little Olde England” sheltered from the real world, so what did I know? Thus I reluctantly (but knowing at the same time I had to do it) started to withhold my rent and took them to court. Even though technically “they” were in the wrong for failing to remedy the conditions in my apartment, they immediately started to send and attempt to “serve” me harassing notices about my rent being in arrears before we had even been to court, and even though I had stated in my letter to them that I was holding the rent in a separate bank account and would be perfectly willing to pay it once the repairs had all been made!
Then I need to thank my friend Julia for helping me even begin the monumental task of purging and packing up my belongings, including multiple trips up and down my five flights of stairs to the trash, and dragging numerous heavy bags with me to Goodwill! To my downstairs neighbor David and my next door neighbor Marie’s grandson Justin, who both helped me move the boxes and heavier items that I could not manage by myself. To my upstairs neighbor Bill, who would check in on me periodically to see how I was holding up and witness the progress as it unfolded. And to my dear old buddy Virginia who helped me start putting some of my belongings back again during the one afternoon we had on our own together whilst she was visiting over the holidays. I was so exhausted from the entire six-month ordeal, I got sick right after it was all over, during most of Thanksgiving and Christmas. My body simply reacted to all of the stress, so I really hadn’t started to unpack all of my boxes. There’s still a stack in my living room now, but hey, what’s the rush?
I Have Stories To Tell – and this was one of them!