BY WINNIE McCROY | A hardscrabble band of Chelsea tenants snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when, 30 minutes before a planned protest, their landlord agreed to the repairs they’ve requested for nearly two years. About 20 people gathered on the morning of Thursday, April 21 at 225 W. 23rd St./220 W. 24th St. (btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.), to get Akelius Management to remediate the ventilation problems tenants say affects their health and safety.
“Today did turn out to be a bit of a victory celebration, because this morning the landlord finally agreed to do what we’ve been calling on them to do for about two years,” said District 3 City Councilmember Erik Bottcher, noting, “This is not our first time in front of this building. We’ve had meeting after meeting with the Department of Buildings [DOB], with elected officials, tenants, and the landlord, and now we get a letter the day of this press conference that they’re finally going to undertake this project to provide ventilation in the hallways.”
“It’s somewhat of a tempered win, only because it means we will have to deal with construction dust and perhaps with maskless workers again, all so they can put together a ventilation system that is not in place yet, and which we will need to keep an eye on,” said 2324 Tenants Association President Thuy Q. Pham.
According to an April 21 email from Akelius, the management company told residents, “We will commence our hallway ventilation project on April 25. Floors and doors will be protected. Project is estimated to last 8-10 weeks. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Pointing to the tenants’ signs cataloguing photos of the sealed windows covered with dirt and pigeon droppings, Bottcher said, “They used to have operable windows that opened. But during the pandemic in 2020, the landlord went and sealed them. All we’ve been asking is that they provide ventilation. The DOB issued Class C violations that say you have to do this within days—but that was a year and a half ago,” he noted. “Here we are in April 2022 and the landlord is finally agreeing to do it, but I’m not happy because now we have to make sure they actually do it, and that this doesn’t happen again in other buildings.”
Bottcher pointed to additional problems in this building that still need to be addressed, among them the front doors. The NYC Department of Human Rights ordered Akelius Management to put in electric doors that are ADA-compliant, but as Bottcher noted, “the doors are frequently inoperable, and there is no way to ring when they are inoperable…which shows a total disrespect and disregard for tenants.”
Tenants have had issues since Akelius sealed the hallway windows of 225 W. 23rd St./220 W. 24th St. back in July 2020. They complained about resulting issues with their health and safety in an earlier CCN article. In January 2021, the DOB Technical Affairs Unit ordered an engineer’s report to measure the air flow; they found that it was inadequate and did not meet code. Later that year, tenants worked with lawyers at Housing Conservation Coordinators to take action in Housing Court against Akelius Management.
“On May 12, 2021, HCC filed an HP proceeding against Akelius Reality in Manhattan Housing… and they were ordered to fix the inadequate ventilation in the building,” said HCC Community Organizer Jorgy Flecha, reading a statement by two staff attorneys. “The tenants’ complaints are supported by 29 HPD violations including five Class C violations, to abate the nuance consisting of unopenable windows obstructing natural ventilation and 24 Class C violations for installing windows floor to ceiling without the minimal standards for ventilation in a co-op. The court ordered Akelius Realty to correct the violations most recently by December 31, 2021. However, Akelius Realty chose not to comply, and the violations still exist. HCC on behalf of tenants are now asking the court to hold Akelius in contempt for violating the most recent order to correct.”
As part of their Order to Show Cause for Contempt, HCC lawyers included an affidavit from a licensed Mechanical Professional Engineer (PE) and Principal at the IP Group, Ivan Pollak, who said, “I reviewed the mechanical drawings and visited the buildings on April 4, 2022. The 2014 Mechanical Code requires that mechanical ventilation is provided for hallways if natural ventilation is not provided. Minimum ventilation rates are indicated in the table 403.3 and paragraph 403.3 of the code. Although mechanical drawings were submitted August 21, 2021, after eight months no work has started yet.”
Pham said that Akelius told tenants that they had encountered “unfortunate circumstances” that they needed to remediate first, including asbestos on the roof. Despite that HCC directed Akelius to fix the ventilation issues by December 31, 2021, they did not indicate they were ready to begin construction until this week.
And these proposed changes may not even be enough. As Monona Rossol, Industrial Hygienist and award-winning designer of more than 40 buildings notes, “Even when the ventilation conforms perfectly to codes and standards, ordinary heating and air conditioning systems (HVAC) cannot handle infections without significant adjustments. The choice between a MERV 6 (or 8) filtered HVAC, which is the current standard, and a sealed building is about evenly bad. One distributes the small particles all through the building, and the other traps them where they are generated to build up to high levels.”
Rossol said an HVAC engineer should evaluate the building’s proposed air handling system to see if it can be upgraded to run a low-resistance MERV 13 (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) and volunteered to talk to any HVAC engineer working on the system.
Many elected officials, including Assembly Member Richard Gottfried—who will retire this December after 52 years of public service—were angered, saying, “replacing windows that allowed for ventilation without putting in a ventilation system is unhealthy.”
“It’s clear in the law that tenants are entitled to a safe, healthy, and livable environment,” said Gottfried. “That includes heat and hot water, and we all understand it includes appropriate and adequate ventilation. The concept of a free flow of fresh air goes back decades in our laws. We have bills in the legislature to incorporate references to various engineering organizations’ standards of ventilation; it looks like we may want to dust off those bills and get them reintroduced.”
You Make Me Sick, Say Tenants | Pham took time to further the complaints of her fellow tenants, including safety and health issues. Tenant Laurence Frommer asserts that he got COVID in December 2020 after Akelius installed sealed windows in the hallways of his wing and had unmasked workers and security guards operating in the building. He said his long COVID symptoms have persisted for more than a year, causing him to step down from positions in the Tenants Association and other community groups.
Tenant David Fox, a disabled senior in a wheelchair who said he was immune-compromised, had his helper, Crystal, voice his comments which read, “I am anxious and afraid, as the lack of proper ventilation in the Subject Premises significantly increases my risk of COVID-19 re-exposure and reinfection. I have phlegm upon waking and throughout the day. I cough frequently. I fatigue more easily and have frequent headaches. The phlegm and fatigue dissipate when I leave and return once I am back in my apartment.”
Pham also read comments from an elderly tenant who said they were anxious riding in the elevator with unmasked delivery people whose vaccination status was unknown. The tenant, who must use a cane due to a strained knee, cannot take the stairs. But their high concern over the risk of exposure to COVID-19 forces them to wait until the elevator is empty to ride it.
Tenant Representative for HP Action Laura Shapiro said that as a dancer, she is always mindful of her breath, and has been concerned about both the lack of ventilation and the past presence of oil-based paint in the hallways.
“The pandemic really pointed out how dysfunctional every level of government and every agency is, and it is really impacting people’s health,” said Shapiro. “Sometimes I hold my breath as I go in and out of the building, because it makes me uneasy. There are also my fears over the tiny elevator; with my arthritic hip, I can’t carry something and walk the stairs. I’m afraid they’ll just drag this out for a couple of months and not fix everything.”
Did Tenant and Ally Pressure Turn the Tide? | Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said while it was “great news” that the landlord has committed to finally doing the right thing, “Until the work is actually completed, we’re not going to let up the pressure.” The situation at this building sparked a citywide challenge, said Levine, to implement adequate safeguards to ensure ventilation and air quality in residential buildings in the city. He said he was working on legislation to both establish standards for air flow and particulate matter and establish a baseline for indoor environments in New York City, be it residential or commercial. Levine said the legislation should include both the strengthening of enforcement and funds for retrofitting older buildings. It also shows that the pressure this Tenants Association put on Akelius is finally paying off.
“For years, Akelius has refused to provide basic levels of air quality and ventilation in this building. This was a problem pre-pandemic but after the past two years, this is the type of living condition we can no longer tolerate,” said Levine. “We have got to double down on air quality in this and other residential buildings, and thanks to the pressure that you and other tenants have placed, we have a victory to celebrate this morning.”
“When local elected officials come out to support tenants, it lets landlords know that people who have some influence with the government are supporting these tenants,” said Assemblymember Gottfried. “So, I think it’s always important for assemblymembers and councilmembers to come out and support tenants, to make calls and write letters. Likely the prospect of today’s press event and the constant work of the Tenant’s Association finally moved the landlord to act. I can only hope other landlords will take a lesson here and understand that abusing tenants can’t go on forever, and that they’d be a lot better off if they live up to the law and their responsibilities.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman said he has been organizing with the tenants at this building and the HCC for many years, but Akelius has been dragging their feet every step of the way.
“It’s unfortunate that hardworking New Yorkers have to take time out of their day just to have an apartment that is well-ventilated and gets the maintenance and attention that frankly every tenant deserves,” said Hoylman. “But I’m proud of this effort and grateful to HCC for all of their work and for the support of the elected officials. This is good news, but I think all of us will believe it when it’s completed. Especially during COVID, there is probably no more pressing issue as we move forward than ventilation. As people push back on masking, this becomes even more important. I just hope it’s a call to arms for other tenants to work with their neighbors and elected officials to get the results they need.”
Councilmember Bottcher added that, “This shows what can happen when tenants and elected officials come together, but the truth is it shouldn’t have had to come to this. The landlord should have done the right thing and city agencies should have forced them to do the right thing.”
Pham closed the press conference by thanking both the tenants, HCC, and the elected officials for coming out, and said, “This is a step in the right direction, but we will have to make sure it happens, not just for our building but for every building.”
Pointing to outdated DOB housing codes from 2001, Pham said they need to stay on track to amend these codes to incorporate the threat of COVID and its variants, “for the safety of all tenants.” For now, however, they will take the win.
“The fact that the landlord says they’ll finally start work on the hallways is a real victory and it’s a testament to what tenants can organize together, especially with groups like Housing Coordinators going to court and fighting for [them],” said Assemblymember Gottfried. “It’s a good lesson for this community and for tenants all over the city.”
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