Tenants in a newly privatized residential building on the Upper West Side said they’re suffering through the late-summer heat due to façade work that began early this month. Their windows, balcony doors and air conditioning units, tenants said, are covered in plastic sheeting and no fresh or conditioned air can get into individual apartments.
“I never thought they could seal us in like this, in the dog days of summer,” said resident Gabriel Wimberly, president of the tenants association at 175 West 95th St. “The windows are sealed shut, they’ve got to be breaking someone’s law.”
The building is a 28-story, 270-unit residential building at Amsterdam Avenue and 95th Street that privatized earlier this year after several decades in the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. Some residents took buyouts, said Wimberly, but the majority opted to remain in their units and maintain their protected rent status. In addition, he said, all but a handful of the apartments have balconies and are affected by the work.
The building’s owner, Starrett Corp., told tenants the work is being done in compliance with Local Law 11, which requires physical inspection of a building’s façade via scaffolding — and maintenance if necessary – every five years.
But in addition to the façade work, balconies are being resurfaced and new railing hardware is being installed. Wimberly suspects the owners are seeking to make the newly privatized building more attractive to prospective buyers by upgrading the balconies under the guise of Local Law 11.
“No question about it that the work is being done to make the units look like luxury apartments,” said Wimberly, who provided a letter from the landlord showing the façade was last inspected in 2012. “They said it was for Local Law 11 but that’s not true.”
On a recent visit to Wimberly’s apartment the air was hot and stuffy. A tower fan pointed at the couch labored mightily to circulate the fug around the living room. The balcony door, which is glass, was covered with heavy plastic sheeting and blue tape, as were the windows and his AC grill. The temperature outside was 93 degrees.
Wimberly said the plastic sheeting went up on Friday, Aug. 28. According to AccuWeather.com, the temperature that day was 82 degrees. It climbed steadily over that weekend and into the following week, peaking at 93 degrees on Aug. 3.
And there are other issues to contend with in addition to the soaring temperatures. For instance, tenants were told to remove all furniture and belongings from their balconies but were not told for how long. For Stephanie Ferguson, that means dealing with patio furniture that’s now piled up in her living room.
“I don’t know how long the work is going to last or whether I should put this stuff in storage,” said Ferguson. “And who’s going to pay for that?”
Ferguson also has pets, which she said are suffering due to the heat inside her apartment. A letter from Starrett on Aug. 31 instructs tenants to keep items off the balcony “until further notice.”
Wimberly also criticized Starrett for not breaking the work into sections so only a certain number of tenants would be affected at one time. He said it’s frustrating for tenants to have their apartments sealed up while no work is being done.
Tenant Manuel Casanova said residents were given no advance notice that their apartments would be sealed in plastic. Letters provided by Wimberly show that Starrett first notified tenants of the façade work in mid-July and instructed them to remove belongings from the balcony. Three other notices were sent in August, none of which mention that apartments would be sealed from the outside in plastic sheeting.
“There was no way for people to fully understand what was going on,” Casanova said. “The apt is very hot and at the same time very claustrophobic.”
Casanova said in his opinion the façade work has been completely mismanaged, and echoed Wimberly’s objection that the work was not completed in individual sections.
“They’re spreading out the pain for everybody for a very long time,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about communication.”
After much protest from tenants and a letter expressing “grave concern” from Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, Starrett sent a statement to tenants last week agreeing to remove the plastic sheeting from the air-conditioning vents on Sept. 3, but said the plastic would be put back in place the morning of Sept. 8.
“This will enable residents to use their air conditioners starting at 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday, Sept. 7,” said Starrett spokesperson Zach Young, reading off the company’s statement to tenants. “This should alleviate the expected heat wave over the weekend.”
Young declined to answer other questions regarding the work’s affect on tenants, except to say the company deferred the project until September to spare tenants during summer’s hottest months and that the plastic sheeting is required to prevent dust and other construction debris from penetrating apartments. As for a timeline, Young said the work is set to continue throughout the winter. A worker in the building told a reporter it would be at least another year.
“Management takes all residents’ concerns seriously, and we’re working on other alternatives to accommodate everyone during this heat wave,” said Starrett’s statement, which noted that after Aug. 8 tenants should await further instruction on the use of AC units. The company also offered tenants an air-conditioned community center as relief from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at a property they own on Columbus and 96th Street.
In her letter dated Aug. 31, Rosenthal said apartments at the building were dangerously hot due to a recent heat wave and that the elderly and infirmed were at great risk.
“There are several concerns that must be addressed and I ask that you take action immediately to rectify the un-acceptable conditions” residents now find themselves in, she said.
In a later interview she said despite the temporary reprieve Starrett announced last week, she’s still concerned about the work’s affect on tenants.
“This is a building I’ve been working with for a number of years,” said Rosenthal, in reference to her time on Community Board 7 and in the city council. “It’s one of those Mitchell Lama conversion buildings where we have to really keep our eye out to make sure that the tenants who remained continue to get treated as tenants with equal rights.”
Rosenthal also said she’s working with the Department of Buildings to increase enforcement efforts on the tenant protection plan at 175 West 95th St., which must be filed by a building owner with the agency for any work that would have an affect on tenants.