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Water Woes in the Bronx
The borough has the city’s poorest neighborhoods and the most water problems
By Ivy Nyayieka
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If you live in New York City, you expect that when you turn on your tap, the water that will come out will be of the right quality, temperature and pressure.
However, this is not true for some New York City neighborhoods. If you live in the Highbridge/Concourse community district in the Bronx, one in four 311 complaint calls you will make will be related to problems you are facing with your water. In fact, three of the five New York neighborhoods with the highest water-related complaints are in the Bronx. In the last decade, the number of water-related complaints in Highbridge/Concourse was higher than the number of people who called the area home.
Other severely affected neighborhoods include the Bronx’s Fordham/University Heights and Kingsbridge Heights/Bedford areas. In contrast, four of the five least affected neighborhoods are in Manhattan, including the Upper East Side despite its population being among the densest.
An analysis of the buildings with the highest water-related complaints shows that, in the case that the landlords have properties outside the Bronx, the highest number of violations tend to occur within the Bronx even for the same landlord. In some cases, the same landlord is responsible for multiple buildings featuring among those with the highest hot water complaints. The average New York City landlord owns more than 20 properties and nearly 900 units.
In the ten years since Christopher Lopez started living at 1025 Boynton Ave. in the Parkchester/Soundview community district, which is among the affected, residents at the address, which has 67 apartments, have made nearly 5700 water-related complaints to 311. That is an average of 85 complaints per unit.
On October 2, the second day of cold rainy weather, residents filed out of 1025 Boynton Ave. wearing warm coats and hats; in fact, they had been wearing these same clothes inside. The boiler had been malfunctioning for three days, leaving them without hot water and with unreliable heating.
“Well, there's been over three days,” said Lopez. “I might get lukewarm for like 15 minutes and then the water is gone. The hot water is gone.”
When they do get the hot water, its temperature is inconsistent.
“You got two choices: scalding hot water or freezing cold,” he said. Lopez lives with his girlfriend. As a result of her paralysis, he said, she was not able to feel a spike in temperature and suffered third degree burns in the one bedroom apartment for which they pay $1100 a month. . Now, she is suing the landlord for the injury.
Lopez’s toilet does not always flush. Fellow tenants tell him that they can’t keep sink water running and that their toilets frequently overflow and can’t be flushed despite numerous complaints.
As New York City cools down in the winter, complaints about water climb, typically peaking in January. For instance, in January 2022, complaints related to water for Highbridge/Concourse were 78% higher than those in January 2021. Yet 311 complaints alone do not cover the extent of the problem.
Frustrated Bronx residents said they had little luck reaching their superintendents and their landlords.
“The service is horrible,” Lopez said. “The landlord, he's non-responsive. The super doesn't do his job unless you call them and then you got to call them 100 times.”
Indeed, says Martin Stute, a professor of Environmental Science at Barnard College. “Landlords in parts of the city are notoriously bad at providing enough hot water for bathing and heating.”
Landlords are fined when they don’t provide hot water in the winter time “but enforcement is lacking,” Stute said. To heat water, landlords would typically use gas, which they are responsible for paying for. “There's no technical reasons necessarily,” he said. “It's the lack of interest on the landlord, maybe the lack of complaining power, you know, maybe folks don't have the connections to put a lot of weight on their complaints.”
Michael S. Goldenberg, a lawyer for 1025 Boynton Ave’s landlord, Moshe Piller, said in an email that they had no comment when contacted about the complaint.
According to Thomas Licharson, a Senior Staff Attorney at Bronx Legal Services, cases related to heating and hot water often come down to the landlords’ word against the tenants’.
“Just because the heat wasn't working in your apartment last night, when it was below zero doesn't mean that it'll not be working a week later at two o'clock in the afternoon, when HPD decides to come by,” he said. “The heat and hot water complaints and violations are, by nature, more complicated because they're more difficult to prove, unlike, say a hole in a ceiling from a leak which an inspector can just come out and observe and issue a violation.”.
The 1025 Boynton Ave. building, for instance, appears among the most complained-about buildings overall by year. But the number of complaints have trended significantly downwards in the last few years. In March 2022, the city filed a lawsuit against its landlord, Moshe Piller. According to the lawsuit, Piller accumulated “over 1,900 violations from numerous City agencies over many years. Rather than taking corrective action, the Defendants have allowed their buildings to deteriorate to the point where they pose an imminent threat to the health and safety of the tenants and the public."
Residents in the Bronx say they have turned to 311 but have seen little or no improvements especially in the long-term. Eventually, some decided to stop calling 311. This means that though 311 complaints could signal problems with water in the buildings, the volume of 311 calls could be much lower than the actual problems.
“I stopped calling,” said Lopez. “It wasn't making a difference. Just wasting time on the phone being on hold for half an hour, 45 minutes. They may pick up the phone and just verbally tell you ‘We're going to start a complaint. Here's a complaint number.’ But nothing ever gets done. So what's the point of the complaint?
“I think people don't even complain anymore because they've just gotten used to it being a shitty neighborhood and a shitty building.”
Tenants in the worst affected buildings said that landlords would superficially resolve violations before city inspectors came by, for example, turning off the heat at night when it was freezing only to turn it back on during the day when the city might investigate violations. As a result, lower income residents use low-quality space heaters which can cause fires. A January 2022 fire caused by a space heater at 333 E. 181st St in Fordham Heights killed 19 people.
“There are plenty of apartments where clients are living in substandard conditions when inspected and there's no official record of what's going on,” said Rick Khan, an attorney at Mobilization for Justice’s Bronx office. He added that few tenants seek advocacy support because of just one problem in their apartment. They have a number of conditions in the apartment that are in need of repair, and not just an isolated condition.
“It's a combination of old housing stock, intentional neglect, poor people who have very little political capital, meaning that the housing in the Bronx has just been long neglected. As a result of that, we just see the fact that our clients in the Bronx, are living with housing conditions that are just deplorable.”
There is also the issue of water itself, which residents in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods complain is not safe to drink.
In response to an email about water concerns in the Bronx, Edward Timbers, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wrote in an email, “New York has some of the best tap water in the world. It meets or exceeds all state and federal health and safety parameters.”
New York City differs from other metropolitan areas in that residents do not pay a water bill – it is included in their taxes, said Natalie Bartfay, an urban planning researcher at Columbia University. This means that the city is responsible for the water that flows into its pipes, not a private utility. New Yorkers are assured of not having their water turned off for failing to pay a water bill.
According to the DEP, there is a comprehensive water testing program comprising more than 750,000 tests of water samples at different points of the system each year. Although the water that flows into the city is of good quality, data shows that some water tanks in a scattering of New York neighborhoods tested across the city are contaminated with coliform and have poor turbidity levels or cloudiness.
New York water is “delivered virtually lead free,” according to the city’s official website, but given the age and material of some water service lines and interior plumbing infrastructure, a couple of dozen of the 375 tests conducted in the last two years show lead levels at tap water above recommended EPA levels of 15µg/L. Lead in drinking water can be harmful, especially to young children and pregnant women. According to an official government report, New York water also contains quantities of Haloacetic Acid 5 that surpassed permitted contaminant levels, increasing the risk of cancer as well as pregnancy complications.
Experts say that water quality can deteriorate at the building level rather than at the source. “If something happens to the water quality,” Stute said, “it's usually in the building itself.”
Namir Ahmad, a research fellow at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, attributed the problem to poor maintenance by landlords of water storage tanks and internal pipe systems. Older buildings, he added, are at higher risk of pollutants, in part due to rust or corrosion contaminating the water.
The Bronx has a particularly old housing stock. If old internal plumbing infrastructure and tanks are poorly maintained, it can affect the quality of the water, Ahmad said. “If they are not maintaining their tanks that deliver water to their houses, then maybe that is the problem,” he said.
In addition, New York’s water pipes are aging. The life cycle of pipes is 70 years. The average age of New York pipes is 65 years old and the city is racing to replace them, according to media reports. The Bronx suffers the highest rate of water loss among the boroughs due to leaks in water mains at 32%.
Given the buildings, often constructed pre-war, are likely receiving tax abatements as a result, Licharson says landlords are less likely to prioritize repairs despite multiple law suits. Due to the high costs of an overhaul, instead of fixing building-wide systems such as a defective boiler or deficient piping, landlords will poorly fix symptoms of the problem tenant by tenant.
“They may be receiving a large portion of their rent rolls from folks who are low income and therefore have their monthly rent subsidized by a state or a city program. And sometimes landlords are not interested in undertaking these huge expenses as far as improving these building systems because it's not as though they can just turn around and jack up the rent as a result. They can only increase the rents a certain amount,” says Licharson
“If a tenant is upset with the fact that they haven't received heat for the last month, so they decided to withhold their rent, the landlord is still being paid by the city or the state regardless of the conditions in the apartment, and therefore the tenant is only able to withhold the other portion. The landlord is getting paid regardless of whether he fixes this problem or not. These aren't in a lot of cases, market rent apartments, the landlord is kind of disincentivized from doing the more expensive work that it would take to fix these underlying problems than they would be that particular tenant was paying out of pocket,” says Licharson.
An analysis of water related complaints shows higher rates in poorer neighborhoods.
“It's certainly true that some parts of the city are treated more favorably than others,” said Stute. “It's always sort of an environmental justice reason. Often poor neighborhoods are not treated as well by landlords. Maybe folks living in housing in poorer neighborhoods are not as empowered as they maybe are in others and they don't complain enough or the rent is somewhat lower so the landlords will have fewer resources also,” Stute said.
Experts say there is also a trend in terms of racial demographics, with Bartfay characterizing the water problems “a socio economic problem affecting black and brown people.”
An analysis of 311 water-related complaints underscores the disparity in call volume between neighborhoods that are majority white and majority people of color.
Advocacy groups file lawsuits in Housing Court on behalf of residents to order landlords to perform repairs. Filing complaints through the State Division of Housing Community Renewal can also result in reduction of rent until the problem is resolved.
“Sometimes there are housing conditions such as no hot water,” said Rick Khan. “Just by filing court papers, the landlord becomes motivated to perform repairs and then there are others who just resist and resist. And it might get to the point where we get an order from the judge. And then the landlord still doesn't perform the repairs and then we have to file a contempt motion and have the landlord held in contempt. And it's usually at some point along the way the landlord will eventually do the repairs. But it really varies.”
In 2022, the HPD issued over 4,800 heat violations and 8,000 hot water violations and initiated more than 750 heat cases in Housing Court, according to the department’s website.
According to Licharson, South Bronx residents are disadvantaged by a lower ability to hire a private attorney to litigate their water issues.
“These cases are just as difficult to litigate in the South Bronx as they would be to litigate in the Upper East Side. But they're going to be more prevalent in the South Bronx because folks in the South Bronx will have less means of access to an attorney and ability to get a more robust response from their landlord, lower priority in terms of city agencies responding,” says Licharson.
“And I think that there is an understanding by a lot of these landlords that they can get away with things up to a certain point where they're about to get hit with thousands of dollars in civil penalties. They have done the calculation that it is easier to get away with this kind of bad behavior and non adherence to city housing maintenance code where the folks that are going to be the victims of it are in a worse position to seek recourse in the courts,” says Licharson.
“I don't know what's going on?” said Lopez. “I know that Queens is clean. Brooklyn's cleaned up. Manhattan is clean. The Bronx is the only place where I don't know they just like ignoring us. I have no idea why.”
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