GLBT AMERICA maintenance Philadelphia renters who lacked consistent heat hope others learn from their experience

Philadelphia renters who lacked consistent heat hope others learn from their experience

On a frigid mid-January night, Adrian Bower’s West Philadelphia studio was ice cold.

The apartment was frigid again — something Bower and other tenants of the New Horizons Housing apartment building say they had grown used to. From late 2019 until the end of January, the 58-unit building at 46th Street and Chester Avenue lacked consistent overnight heat, five tenants said.

“I was so miserable,” Bower said. “I was lying there in bed and I started asking myself why, in the Christian tradition, hell is so often depicted as a lake of fire, rather than ice cold.”

Landlords are required to heat units to at least 68 degrees from Oct. 1 through April 30, per Philadelphia’s property maintenance code. But residents told The Inquirer the heat in the building has often been lacking for hours-long stretches overnight for more than two years.

Their experience touches on reasons resolving maintenance issues can be challenging for renters: They’re not sure their concerns merit filing a complaint, they don’t want to strain relationships with their landlords, or they don’t know how to get help.

The building now has a new heater, but housing advocates say these residents’ years-long saga is an example of how renters are less aware of resources and options when facing habitability issues. Help, advocates say, is not limited to tenants facing eviction.

And a Bronx apartment fire last month that left 19 people dead, sparked from a resident using a space heater, highlighted the dangers of inadequate heat.

At 46th and Chester, some tenants bought electric space heaters and bundled up in blankets and coats. One resident used an oven for warmth, a serious safety risk due to potential fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.

“The possibility of somebody using an unsafe space heater because it’s the one their grandmother had, or 50 space heaters at once causing an electrical overload … increases the fire hazard,” said Ezra Nepon, 43, a New Horizons resident of more than three years.

» READ MORE: Low-income tenants facing eviction can now get free legal representation in 2 Philly zip codes

Inspectors with the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections contacted building management and visited the building five times since 2020 because of 311 complaints. But it wasn’t until an inspector dropped in at 6:50 a.m. on Jan. 14 that the city found “insufficient heat” and issued violation notices, which were quickly addressed as a fix was already on the way.

The new boiler installed at the end of January was ordered in September 2021, said a company official who declined to be identified, but because of pandemic-related delays, it didn’t arrive until last month.

With the exception of one night, tenants say heat has been steady.

“We’re here to service our residents and we do a great job at it at all our buildings,” the company official said. “If it weren’t for COVID, the boiler would have been here in two weeks.”

New Horizons said a broken controller caused the issues in 2019 and 2020 and was replaced in 2020. The new heating system was part of a capital investment as the old boiler became less efficient, the representative said. Once management learned of the disruptions in heat, it said it had a maintenance person overseeing the boiler 24/7.

» READ MORE: PHA is relocating residents to redevelop crumbling public housing towers. Most will never return.

New Horizons Housing said it sent multiple building-wide emails, including notes in October and November that it provided The Inquirer, letting renters know that a new heating system had been ordered but supply-chain issues were causing a delay.

When residents complained about the heat, New Horizons said, it offered electric heaters, as well as $10 a month to offset the extra electricity use. Management said seven tenants took them up on the offer.

These credits became another sore point as neighbors such as Nepon, Bower, and ToniVictoria Lambert, 65, compared notes.

Nepon was given $180 for 18 months of inconsistent heat. Lambert was credited for only 12 months. Bower and two other tenants who asked not to be identified said they didn’t know tenants could get reimbursement at all — Bower said the management company provided a space heater.

“I have compassion for the challenge of resolving the issue,” Nepon said. “What I don’t have compassion for is that they have not communicated with the tenants in any way.”

The building is a mix of studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments ranging from about $850 to $1,300 in rent. Tenants describe neighbors as a mix of college students or young adults, with children and older adults peppered across the building, many drawn by the fact that heat and water utilities are included in rent.

“You have people that entrusted their money for you to provide a roof and you say you’re gonna provide X, Y, and Z, in this case heat, and you’re lax about it,” Lambert said.

Nepon, Bower, and others said they submitted scores of maintenance requests through New Horizons’ internal tenant portal. Since 2020, eight heat complaints have been reported through 311, including five from Nepon, who also eventually reached out to Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and State Rep. Rick Krajewski for help.

Best practices for filing 311 complaints

  • What to file about: Property maintenance issues can include but are not limited to buildings in disrepair, broken windows, and buildings open to trespass. Renters can file 311 complaints if their building is dangerous, there are fire safety concerns, has trash or construction related issues.
  • What to include: There’s no such thing as too much information; be as specific about the problem as possible. If an L&I inspector needs special instructions to get eyes on a problem, provide those details.
  • Anonymity: Residents don’t need to give their name to file a complaint, but if the issue is specific to your home consider giving your contact information because inspectors can only write violations for problems they can see.

Bower didn’t press management further because maintenance has typically been responsive to repair requests. What’s more, Bower said it would be difficult to find a better lease if the relationship with management soured.

“I don’t have a ton of choices,” Bower said.

» READ MORE: What renters in the Philly region look for in an apartment

Osarugue Grace Osa-Edoh, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, said part of what her organization does is work to change that perception.

“A lot of times tenants aren’t communicating with each other,” she said. “They think, ‘I can’t stand up to this landlord,’ and that may or may not be true, but as a group, they definitely have more power than individually.”

Osa-Edoh said renters have reason for optimism when maintenance problems arise.

The Philly Tenant Hotline, Philadelphia Housing Commission, and CLS can help tenants navigate issues. She recommends tenants learn their rights.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania tenants’ rights guide

“There’s a lot that [renters] could do, but there’s also a lot that they should know,” said Osa-Edoh. “For example, every case that has to do with repairs and rent abatement starts with notification.”

Tenants should have written documentation establishing a repair issue with their landlord or management company. These communiques can establish whether a landlord is responding to complaints within a reasonable time frame and make it easier to sue a landlord if issues go without remedy.

Sometimes, just having someone advocating for renters can pressure landlords to address repairs. Seeking professional help doesn’t lock tenants into any specific course of action.

Nepon and neighbors hope, if nothing else, that their experience can help other renters with concerns navigate conversations with landlords.