Residents of a Brooklyn apartment building that receives a multimillion-dollar tax break from the state have recently started withholding rent as they’ve contended with years of reported gas leaks, leaving many of them without heating or cooking gas as temperatures drop.
Domain Companies, which developed and manages the building at 1133 Manhattan Ave. in Greenpoint, paid roughly $100,000 in property taxes last year on the building, which is valued at nearly $48 million, according to tax records. The property tax bill is relatively low because the building was part of a recently expired state program that gives developers tax breaks in exchange for setting aside a portion of their housing stock for affordable housing.
But despite the heralded “inspired amenities” the building boasts – including skyline views, stainless steel appliances and a building gym with glossy CrossFit equipment – residents say they’ve been cooking with loaned hot plates that they have to return to management between meals.
Though the heat was turned back on earlier this month, tenants in the complex say they’re worried about using it. They also worry that the frequent gas leaks are causing health problems.
“I don't know if I will ever use these units again, because I don't feel safe,” said Marissa Manzanares, who’s been living in the complex with her family since 2015.
Even the short-term solutions have raised safety concerns, especially the use of space heaters after one sparked a fire in the Bronx earlier this year that killed 17 people.
“I had a space heater and a humidifier in one outlet, and it blew the fuses in my apartment so the electricity went out,” said Manzanares.
Because the building’s cooking gas remains off, management has been providing tenants with nightly catered dinners. They told tenants in an email last week that they had 15 plumbers on site and that work will be done “very soon.”
Meanwhile, residents recently started working with a lawyer to help guide them in how to get rent cuts from the building owners.
'Afraid of being homeless'
Eighty-seven residents in the 210-unit building have been withholding rent for the last few weeks as problems have persisted with the cooking gas, heating and hot water. But some of the lower-income residents who applied for the housing lottery to secure a reduced rent to live in the building are too scared to complain.
“I signed something when I won the housing lottery that said you can be kicked out for not paying rent,” said Allison Miller, a resident who shares her apartment with her teenage son.
“I'm afraid of being homeless,” Miller said.
When the building's construction was finished in 2014, the housing lottery was extremely competitive, with nearly 60,000 applicants vying for 105 affordable housing units.
Colin Kent-Daggett, a tenant advocate with the St. Nicks Alliance who has been advising residents, says tenants often do not speak up for fear that their landlord will threaten them.
“Landlords have a lot of power over people and make them feel really afraid and powerless to complain and stand up for their rights,” he said. “No one wants to go to housing court and defend themselves and take time off of work to go argue with their landlord in front of a judge.”
When the building opened, its income-restricted units went anywhere from $494 for a studio to $2,405 for a two-bedroom, while market-rate two-bedroom apartments in the building rented for an average of $4,450 last year, according to StreetEasy.
While other cities have programs to help housing development, New York's five-decade long 421-a tax exemption program is unique because of how big the tax break is – one of the largest in the city, according to Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All.
The program cost the city nearly $2 billion in annual lost tax revenue, according to the Community Service Society’s analysis of Department of Finance records.
The measure expired in June despite an attempt by Gov. Kathy Hochul and the real estate industry to rework the program following critiques that it was a giveaway to developers. It’s expected to be a top item for discussion among Albany lawmakers as they start their legislative session next month.
Multiple leaks found
After years of complaining to building management over the smell of gas, someone finally lodged a complaint to National Grid about the persistent issue in September, according to the company.
According to National Grid, the utility found “multiple leaks” in the building’s piping and plumbing and turned the building’s gas off.
Last month, Domain Companies, the building’s developer and manager, held a meeting to update tenants on their efforts. Multiple residents expressed concerns that their carbon monoxide alarms were going off constantly, raising questions about potential leaks beyond natural gas, according to a recording of the two-hour meeting reviewed by Gothamist.
During the meeting with the companies, one tenant said property managers had instructed her to put a shower cap over the alarm.
A Domain Companies executive, Mohini Merchant, said in a statement that “the well-being of our Eleven33 residents is our top priority.”
“We have communicated with them directly on a regular basis,” said Merchant, the company's communication director, added that the company would continue to do so.
The city’s Department of Buildings confirmed that repairs to fix the gas leak were made and the building turned the heat back on in early December.
In an email sent to tenants in October shared with Gothamist, management said they were waiting to offer concessions “until we know the totality of the problem."
In the meantime, residents who are still worried about turning their heat back on say they suspect years of living with a gas leak has affected their health.
“My son's lungs are terrible,” Manzanares said. “My lungs have gotten so bad that literally two weeks before the gas got shut off I finally told my doctor, ‘I guess I'm ready for steroids because I can't breathe anymore.’ I've gone from inhalers and now I'm on steroids.”
Hot plates for hot meals
Misbath Daouda, a Ph.D candidate in climate and health at Columbia University's School of Public Health, says while any correlation is speculative, long term exposure to gas can have negative health outcomes.
“Gas leaks can be very, very powerful,” said Daouda, who studies the effect of gas stoves on families living in public housing in the Bronx. “Usually headaches and dizziness occur very rapidly after experiencing a gas leak.
Some residents have picked up portable gas detectors to keep tabs on the air quality. That’s just one of many appliances they’ve had to shell out money for.
While the cooking gas still doesn’t work, some residents have bought Crockpots and air fryers to cook for their families.
Tenants with limited financial means who are part of the building’s affordable housing program, on the other hand, layer up with heavy blankets and use the space heaters supplied by the building.
“I complained about having to give the hot plate back in between lunch and dinner,” said Miller, the other tenant. “I'm pretty sure they can afford to buy each unit a hot plate.”
Manzanares, Miller and other tenants say they would move out of the building if they could afford to.
“I feel very, very stuck, trapped and completely in fear,” Miller said.
In the meantime, Domain, the building’s developer, is expected to complete a 544-unit development in the South Bronx early next year.