Friday, January 10, 2014

The Polar Vortex in New York Is Affecting Life — Taking Lives

Christine Ortega struggles to keep her daughter, Christael Carab who has cerebral palsy, warm. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
For Some Tenants, Only Thing Heating Up Is a Temper
by John Leland

In her chilly living room in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, Vernaline McFarlane on Tuesday read the most recent dates from a spiral notebook she has kept since October.

Jan. 2. No heat for 11 ½ hours.

Jan. 3. No heat after 11 a.m.

Jan. 4. No heat all day.

Jan 5. No heat until 10 p.m., and then only for 10 minutes.

She could not read any more.

With the winds outside punishing New Yorkers with blasts of single-digit temperatures, Ms. McFarlane paced her apartment wearing wool pants under her jeans and a heavy wool jacket over a sweatshirt and vest. The only heat came from her oven and a space heater, enough to take the edge off without making it comfortable. Imagine an apartment in which it seemed possible never to be warm again.

Which is not to say Ms. McFarlane was cold; she was furious.

“I’m tired of this,” she said, her voice scratchy from a cold and asthma, both irritated by the lack of heat. “I’m sick. This morning my nose was bleeding. The city knows I’m using the oven to heat the apartment, but it’s just so frustrating because no one is helping us. When is it going to stop?”

The temperature in Ms. Caraby's room was below 60 degrees.
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
On Tuesday the whole city seemed choked in arctic suffering, as the morning low temperature of 4 degrees shattered a century-old record for the date. More than a quarter of New York City public school students stayed home, up from less than 10 percent the day before.

The cold posed some unique challenges to firefighters: “A lot of the time, the hydrant freezes because it doesn’t drain properly,” said Jim Long, a Fire Department spokesman.

The temperature is expected to climb through the week, to 22 degrees on Wednesday and 51 on Saturday.

For thousands of New Yorkers, that is also the best hope for any relief inside their apartments.

For the first week of 2014, even before the piercing cold of Tuesday, complaints about lack of heat were nearly double what they were during the same period last year. There were 2,900 complaints alone on Tuesday before 3:30 p.m.

For Ms. McFarlane, 45, and her neighbors, who say they have had only sporadic heat since October, the polar vortex that swept down on the city on Monday night was a malicious wind sent into their homes to suck the human warmth from their bones.

“I have to put gloves on my daughter because I can’t keep her hands under the covers,” said Christine Ortega, trying to stay warm in a first-floor apartment with a mattress propped against the window to keep out draughts. Her daughter, Christael Caraby, 6, breathed through a plastic tube in her trachea, a necessity associated with her cerebral palsy.

In 2010, Christael had a collapsed lung, and in their apartment, Ms. Ortega and her boyfriend, Deryck Thomassian, fear another serious illness if they do not keep her warm enough.

Christael needs access to a ventilator, oxygen tank, suction machine and feeding tube, which Ms. Ortega keeps in her daughter’s room. But when she tried running a space heater on the same electrical line, it blew a circuit breaker, so she has had to make a choice: keep her daughter near the machines that can save her life, or keep her near a heat supply that might ward off dangerous chills.

When Bill de Blasio was public advocate, he named the landlord of Ms. Ortega’s building one of the city’s worst. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
The landlord in Ms. McFarlane’s and Ms. Ortega’s buildings, at 930 and 940 Prospect Place in Crown Heights, Seth Miller, was named one of the city’s 50 worst landlords by Bill de Blasio last year, when he was the city’s public advocate.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development lists 78 open violations in the two buildings, which have a common heating system. Since Mr. Miller’s company, Aegis Realty Management Company, bought the buildings out of foreclosure in 2012, tenants say it has harassed and tried to evict long-term tenants, challenging their leases and refusing to accept their rent payments, in order to bring in higher-paying residents. The tenants have sued Aegis and Mr. Miller for failure to provide heat and adequate hot water; their case is scheduled to be heard in housing court next Tuesday.
New York City Bus equipped w/ traction supported tires
Reached on Tuesday at his office in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Miller said “no comment” and hung up the phone.

George and Shirley Brown, who moved into 930 Prospect Place in 1969 after they married, said they now felt threatened on several fronts: by a landlord who wanted their apartment; by the cold; and by the fire hazard posed by so many people using space heaters under such desperate conditions.

“I never leave the heater on at night,” Ms. Brown, 63, said. “But I worry about others. Once in a while I use the oven.”
In a first-floor apartment, Nicole Carty, 25, who with her two roommates pays more than $2,100 in monthly rent, wore a maroon knit hat and thick fuzzy slippers, and said she often spent days working in a local coffee shop because her apartment was too cold.

A massive winter storm on Jan. 2 was followed by very
cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills.
“The other day it was down in the 40s,” she said. “One day my roommate borrowed my hair dryer to warm herself so she could change her clothes.”

Ms. McFarlane stopped in to say hello to Ms. Carty. Outside the apartment, two workmen in a hallway carried black plastic bags down from a unit on a higher floor, where a tenant had recently moved out. It was the only sign of repair going on in the building.

Ms. McFarlane was beside herself.

“You see what they’re doing?” she said. “They’re busy renovating an apartment while we have no heat.” New York Times

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