The heat is off: New Yorkers cope in cold apartments

As the days without power drag on for an estimated 600,000 New York City residents, hot showers and charged cell phones aren’t the only comforts missing in their lives. They’re also without heat.

The temperature hasn’t dropped below freezing in the five boroughs since Hurricane Sandy hit, so some New Yorkers aren’t complaining — yet. Anton Brisaj, 40, a construction worker without heat in his Gramercy apartment said he didn’t think it had been so bad.

“It’s part of life,” Brisaj said. “You just have to deal with it.”

But for many others, the autumn weather, with lows in the 40s, has been enough to make it plenty chilly, even inside.

When Con Edison’s Manhattan plants produce power, generated steam warms nearby buildings — heat lacking in areas without electricity. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Apartments with electric heating are far from the only ones affected, since even oil and gas-based furnaces require some electricity to work, explained Sam Stein, who coordinates the rent regulation campaign at Tenants & Neighbors. And some high-rise buildings in Manhattan are heated with steam produced by Con Edison at its electric generating plants.

Stein said that the advice he usually gives tenants without heat — to call 311, speak with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and write a certified letter to their landlord — is not exactly applicable in the storm’s aftermath. “Presumably it’s not within the landlord’s power to give the tenant heat right now if they don’t have it,” he noted.

Legally speaking, the rules still apply, according to tenant lawyer David Hershey-Webb. In an email, Hershey-Webb explained that tenants left powerless in the wake of superstorm Sandy could still technically ask their landlords for reduced rent, since the “warranty of habitability” in landlord-tenant law — a strict promise to keep an apartment in livable condition — is ironclad.

“The cause of the lack of heat or lack of other services does not preclude the tenant from obtaining a rent abatement,” said Hershey-Webb.

For now, groups working directly with tenants are focused on emergency needs.

“This is an act of God,” Joe Restuccia, executive director of Clinton Housing Development Company on the west side, said of the storm. “How do you figure in rent issues?”

For those sticking it out without power, and trying to stay warm, a number of safety precautions apply.

Dr. Robert S. Fleming, a professor of Management at Rowan University and an expert on emergency management, said that most guidelines for going without heat are simply common sense. Fleming said that to stay warm, people should bundle up, keep windows and doors shut so as not to let cold air in, and avoid the carbon monoxide poisoning risks of using stoves for warmth. Obvious though that advice may sound, Fleming said, it’s best not to assume that people in the aftermath of a storm will act rationally.

“Many times when people are really panicking —and it’s understandable why people would panic in a situation like this— they may not use common sense,” Fleming said.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has issued guidelines for using portable generators for heat. Generators should never be used indoors — not even in garages — or near open windows.

Carbon monoxide  from a household generator has already left one person dead and seven poisoned in the storm’s wake, after a generator was left running in a New Jersey basement on Wednesday night.

For New Yorkers uninterested in dealing with the risks or discomforts of an unheated apartment, there is, of course, another option: leave.

For Katya Rogers, 41, two days of life without power were all it took before she wanted out of her Lower East Side apartment. Rogers cited the lack of heat as one of the main reasons she and her husband decided to relocate with their two young sons to a friend’s in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Wednesday night. Rogers said that without hot water pipes running through the walls, things got very unpleasant in the apartment, very quickly.

“Ours is right on the corner on the 11th floor and the wind was coming right in,” Rogers said. “It was freezing.”

With weekend lows predicted to drop to the mid 30s, strategies for getting by without heat need not be complicated or dangerous.

“I’m getting under my damn comforter and staying there,” said Donna Bernstein, 50, a Manhattanite currently without heat. “That’s my precaution.”

Dr. Fleming would approve.

Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner

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