Sunday, February 10, 2008

Living Without Heat in East Harlem

New York, Feb. 10—This morning, like every other for the past month, Jorge Martínez woke to find his small apartment freezing cold. Having slept in two sweaters, he threw on more clothes, gloves, and a hat before making his way to the kitchen. As he turned the dials on the oven, the stovetop burners slowly breathed warmth back into the room, and into his 68th birthday.

Mr. Martínez is one of more than a dozen tenants at 153 East 105th St. that have been left without heat or hot water for over a month.

“The biggest problem is the old people and the children,” he said. “It’s terrible. Once they stop the heat, the old are becoming frozen.”

Martínez and about twenty others gathered outside the East Harlem apartment building this afternoon to protest their living conditions. With help from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, an East Harlem tenants’ rights organization, the protesters chanted, beat pots and pans, and held up signs in English and Spanish denouncing both their landlord and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

Sadly, their complaints are not uncommon in a city known for high rents and cold winters. But this year could be worse than usual, both in New York and across the country. As fears of a nationwide economic recession have grown more serious, and as the price of oil has gone up, many Americans have begun to wonder if they will be able to pay their heating bills this winter. Meanwhile, critics of the economic stimulus plan President Bush is expected to sign on Monday argue that it does little to make this winter any easier, or warmer, for America’s poor.

For Mr. Martínez and his neighbors, things couldn’t get much colder.

“The heat is only in the morning, a half hour, then you wait until the next day again,” he said, standing in a coat and hat in his kitchen. “When the temperature outside is 40 or 45, we don’t get heat for four days.”

But the frigid rooms aren't caused by a broken boiler or unpaid bills. Instead, tenants have been living without heat and hot water because their landlord, Ramón Durán, says heating oil is too expensive.

“I’m not a million dollar guy,” he said. “I have tenants living over here that are paying $300,” he said. “And you know what? $300 isn’t even enough for oil for one or two weeks.”

“I’ve got my children too,” Durán said, referring to the tenants’ worries for their children. Durán does not live in the building. As for the allegations that there is no heat or hot water, he replied: “That’s what they say, but it’s not true.”

Durán and his tenants also disagree over the role that HPD has played in the dispute. By city law, if tenants report being without heat during the winter and nothing is done within 24 hours, an HPD inspector can force the landlord to fix the problem.

According to Durán, his tenants abuse the law. “I’ve got a problem with one or two tenants,” he said. “They call HPD all the time for no reason. They call HPD before they come over to me, or give me a call.”

“HPD is doing their job,” Durán said, sitting at a table in the back of his restaurant, in the same building as the tenants' homes. “They come over here all the time. They inspect this place all the time.”

Durán’s tenants feel otherwise.

“They don’t come to check on the tenants, to see how they’re doing,” said Iris Vargas, referring to HPD. Her stepfather lives in the building. She pointed out cracks in the walls, tape around loose windows, and the steel girders that were put in place five months ago to keep the building from collapsing.

According to Juan Haro from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, HPD inspectors have yet to show up since the tenants began calling in their complaints almost two weeks ago.

“They’re accomplices to the crime,” he said.

As for Jorge Martínez, he spent his birthday protesting in the February cold. But, for the first time in weeks, he came inside to find his apartment warm.

“Now we got the heat at this time now, that’s because you are here,” he said, referring to the journalists covering the protest. “But once you leave, believe me, they’re going to cut it.”

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