Volume 73, Number 38 | January 21 - 27, 2004

Baby it’s cold inside: Barrow St. tenants lack heat

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

From left, Mary Joo, Angela Boone, Gabrielle Jones and Harry Whitaker.

While the mercury was hitting record lows outside, most New Yorkers had the comfort of knowing that a warm refuge from the arctic chill awaited at home. But for tenants of a five-story apartment building on Barrow St. who spent most of last winter and already much of this one without heat or hot water, home is not where the heat is.

According to a fact sheet issued by the tenants, last winter they went 124 days — and so far this winter 48 days — without heat or hot water. Tenants in 12 of the building’s 14 apartments have been on a rent strike since November 2002, after the landlord illegally installed a boiler that has failed to function properly ever since.

“I was born in this building, moved out, moved back. This is the worst landlord we’ve ever had,” said Gabrielle Jones, co-owner with her mother of Pennyfeathers restaurant on Seventh Ave. S. “Presently, four of the 13 [tenants] have pneumonia. About three have moved out to friends’ houses. One is in the hospital. We all keep electric heaters and keep our ovens on. We all have huge electric bills from Con Edison. I bought an electric teapot so I can fill up the sink to at least do the dishes. Last night, my dogs’ ears were icy cold — and they had their sweaters on.”

Jones, in her early 40s, said the boiler only works about a third of the time and is constantly overheating and either shutting down or breaking down. The problem, according to her, is that Sushi Samba restaurant, which opened in the adjoining one-story commercial property several years ago, installed its own boiler in a shared boiler room, which overheats, causing the residential building’s boiler to shut down.

“We’ve had three supers in the last three years,” said Jones. “They’ve all quit because they can’t deal with the heating problem.”

The tenants have been in court with their landlord, Adam Varveris, since October 2002 and hope to get the city to take the building away from him and turn it over to a 7A administrator. Varveris owns about 35 buildings in the city, though this is his only Manhattan building.

According to the Hartford Courant, in 2002, Varveris and O’Porto Investments, Inc., became the first residential landlords in Hartford to be denied the right to manage their own building under the state’s three-year-old anti-nuisance law. A Jan. 9, 2002, editorial in the Courant stated: “Mr. Varveris collected rents even as police made 17 drug arrests, trash was left to pile high in the garbage disposal room, elevators and heating units ceased to function and fire extinguishers vanished.” An April 8, 2002, Courant editorial branded Varveris “a certified slumlord.”

Carol Abrams, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation, the agency that oversees heat complaints, said inspectors had recently been sent to 16 Barrow St. on three dates, Dec. 10 and 17, 2003, and Jan. 5, 2004, each time checking apartments 1, 3 and 6.

“The heat was O.K. on all those occasions and the tenants confirmed that they had heat,” Abrams said.

However, Harry Whitaker, who resides in apartment 3, said he could only recall possibly one inspection from H.P.D., not three, during this period. Whitaker, 61, an accomplished jazz pianist who plays at One If By Land and Arturo’s and was Roberta Flack’s musical director — “ ‘Feel Like Making Love,’ that’s me playing” — said that while the tenants are great, the building is a disaster.

“It’s like ‘Amityville Horror,’ ” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll heat water on the stove or turn on the oven to keep warm. I like the water better, the steam — my nose doesn’t get all clogged up by the steam.”

Another tenant, Mary Joo, a 31-year-old medical student, said last year was brutal.
“Last winter was really the worst,” she said. “How did I survive? Space heater, oven, boyfriend’s [place], friend’s [place].”

Joo said the low point came when, hurriedly dressing for work one morning, she seriously burned her hand on a pot of water she was heating to stay warm.

The tenants contend H.P.D. doesn’t take their complaints seriously because the building is in Greenwich Village, considered an upper-middle-class neighborhood. But the lifestyle imposed on 16 Barrow St. is far from luxurious, they say.

“What we want is a super, heat and hot water,” said Joo. “We’re not asking for chandeliers. We would even clean up our own hallways. We just want these three things. It seems unreal — doesn’t it seem like we’re making this up?”

Angela Boone, Jones’ mother and the Village’s female Republican district leader, who also lives in the building, said, “It’s been rough. The other night, Gabrielle called me and she was crying it was so cold in her apartment. But you get to love the Village. It’s the Village that keeps me here.”

However, H.P.D.’s Abrams said, “The idea that we’re not enforcing the housing maintenance code because it’s Greenwich Village is absurd. We’ll enforce it everywhere in the city. We take having no heat seriously.”

Indoor temperatures legally must be at least 68 degrees during day and 55 degrees at night.

Telling The Villager she would “hate for those people to be cold,” Abrams last Thursday promised to send an inspector to the building. The inspector visited Friday and checked the temperature in apartments 5 and 11, both of which were 72 degrees, above the legal minimum. However violations were issued for lack of hot water, since one apartment’s water was 100 degrees and the other’s a lukewarm 70 degrees — both below the 120-degree legal minimum.

Tenants say Varveris installed a 100-gallon water heater in the basement, as opposed to linking the hot water pipe to the boiler, so hot water constantly gives out, forcing them to have to stagger bathing times.

Ilyse Fink, a Department of Buildings spokesperson, said the whole matter is really for H.P.D., the agency that makes emergency heat and hot water repairs.

Fink said Varveris did get a permit on Jan. 14 to legalize installation of the boiler.
“It’s a good sign. They actually got an engineer who filed the actual application,” Fink noted. “It’s had boiler violations in the last two years. It certainly had a lot of complaints over the years.”

Fink said the building was briefly vacated in 2001 apparently because of a facade problem and a sidewalk shed was put up, but the order was quickly lifted.

The tenants say H.P.D. inspectors have had difficulty gaining access to the building because the front-door buzzer was broken and not repaired for four years.

Last Thursday, when The Villager visited Jones’ apartment, the heat was on full blast. However, the tenants said heat had been off in the building from Friday to Tuesday.

Another issue is the illegal rooftop tent enclosure on top of Sushi Samba, of which Varveris is also the landlord. Sushi Samba had sued the Landmarks Preservation Commission in order to keep the tent, but the court found in favor of L.P.C. Landmarks countersued and State Supreme Court Judge Flavio Soto on Sept. 19, 2003, ruled the tent should come down. Landmarks asked for an injunction barring the rooftop’s use and for fines, but Soto refused both requests. Meanwhile, the illegal tent remains.

“The Commission approved an open-air trellis,” said Mark Silberman, Landmarks’ counsel. “[Sushi Samba] very quickly turned it into a four-season dining facility.”

Jones said residents fear the plastic tent, located near their windows, will catch fire, exposing them to toxic PCB’s.

“It’s a building waiting for disaster,” Jones said. “The problem is there’s no enforcement arm,” she said, referring both to the heat and hot water problems and unauthorized tent.

Varveris could not be reached at his office or at his Long Island home where his phone number is unlisted.

His secretary, Elvira Suarez, said, “Every day, the people complain. It’s the same people all the time — two apartments. It’s all the time, two person, a mother and the daughter. Nobody else calling here. I not ignoring the problem. I call to the super.”

H.P.D.’s Abrams reported that on Jan. 15 H.P.D. also issued Varveris a violation after the inspector could not find a superintendent or a sign posted on how to contact one, as well as an additional violation for no access to the boiler room.

Eric Dylan, a building manager in Varveris’s office, said, “I highly doubt that for the past 48 days they have had no heat or hot water. This is a major problem. I know he installed a brand new boiler there last year.”

Asked about the 100-gallon water heater, Dylan said, “100 gallons — it could work — not if everyone used it at the same time.”


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