Knickerbocker rent refunds won’t wash away anger

BY SAM SPOKONY  |   After tension and complaints nearly boiled over into a rent strike, residents of a Lower East Side affordable housing complex will be awarded rent refunds for the weeks they have been without power, heat or running water following Hurricane Sandy, the development’s ownership announced on Tues., Nov. 13.

At a public meeting attended by hundreds of tenants, elected officials and emergency relief personnel, a representative for the owner of Knickerbocker Village — a 12-building, 1,600-unit complex that takes up two blocks of Monroe Street — explained why it took so long for maintenance workers to act on the massive basement flooding that shut down the buildings’ boilers and electrical equipment.

Around 140 units remained without electricity on Wed., Nov. 14. Many residents of Knickerbocker Village had been without all essential utilities since Sandy struck on Oct. 29, and the lack of elevator service forced them to walk up and down the stairs of their 13-story buildings in the dark.

About half of the development’s apartments still lack heat and hot water — management assured residents that those services would be restored by the end of the week. Ten out of the 12 elevator banks were functioning as of Wednesday night, and management said that all of them would have at least one working elevator by the end of the week.

AREA Property Partners, which owns Knickerbocker Village, agreed to provide the rent rebates after a recent intervention by state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the city Division of Community and Housing Renewal (D.H.C.R.).

“We will ensure that not a penny of rent will be paid for the days on which you didn’t have essential services,” Jim Simmons, a representative for AREA, told the residents at the Nov. 13 meeting. He did not specify how soon the refunds would come or how they would be handled.

Without explicitly apologizing, Simmons answered to criticism that management was virtually unresponsive to tenants who were seeking answers about when the services would be restored in the first two weeks after the storm. He explained that, for better or for worse, the owners were preoccupied with safety issues regarding the basement flooding.

“Should we have been more communicative and said to the residents this is exactly what’s going on? Yes,” Simmons said. “You’re 100 percent correct. We were 110 percent focused on assessing the situation correctly, and it was our mistake to not be as forthright and communicative as you deserve.”

He went on to paint a troubling picture of the unprecedented flooding, which in some cases put maintenance workers in danger. “The force of the water did some things to the building which, quite frankly, I’ve never seen before,” Simmons said, adding that the surging waters managed to dislodge the basement’s four-inch-thick steel doors and its 20,000-gallon oil tanks.

The toxic oil spills that ensued forced management to wait for more than a week to pump the massive volume of water out of the basement, since the water needed to be treated by specialists before being flushed out into the East River. Perched in the submerged basement were the complex’s boilers, electrical panels and copper wiring, which were all severely corroded by the saltwater.

Gesturing to the dozens of maintenance workers who stood behind him as he addressed the crowd, Simmons said that, once the boiler rooms were drained of water, the workers had to be evacuated several times in order to avoid exposure to dangerous fumes.

In addition to acknowledging the immense hardships faced by Knickerbocker Village residents, many of whom are elderly, Simmons recognized the workers for their own labor and sacrifices. “To the people who have been working tirelessly around the clock on behalf of this building, I give you my personal thanks, because I know that you all have families, too,” he said.

Simmons noted that there are now daily meetings and flyers to inform residents about important updates on the condition of the building and its services.

While welcoming the rent rebates, some Knickerbocker Village tenants who attended the Nov. 13 meeting were not impressed by what they heard. “The speech was a lot of hot air,” said Manuela Kruger, 73, an eight-year resident of the complex. She voiced concern about the difficulties she and other residents continue to face, as so many other buildings throughout the city have already recovered from Sandy’s impact.

The steam and elevators in her building were still out of service, she noted. “It’s dispiriting,” she said, “and the quality of life is just very poor.”

Despite her feelings of frustration, Kruger went on to say that she chose to continue paying her rent out of principle, and because she felt that funds shouldn’t be withheld when they could be directed to necessary building maintenance and repairs.

Another resident, who has lived in Knickerbocker Village for upwards of 40 years, said he found the meeting informative but that it should have happened at least a week earlier.“ It probably only happened now because we inundated our elected officials and ended up getting all this media attention,” said the resident, who declined to give his name because he works for the city.

When asked about the living conditions at the complex over the past few weeks, he said, “It’s worse than being in the army…and I’ve been in the army.”

Ann Valentino, 64, who has lived in the complex for 35 years, also took issue with the fact that the building’s ownership waited until the mid-November meeting to relay the information. She said that her knees were killing her from walking up and down the stairs to her 10th floor apartment every day. “We never saw them for the first two weeks, and now all of a sudden they’re coming with all these flyers and updates,” Valentino said. “It’s just because we stuck out, and now everyone’s watching.”

Valentino and many of her neighbors were able to band together throughout the crisis in order to help those who needed supplies.“I must have given away 15 flashlights,” she said. “It was tough, but this is still a neighborhood, so we stick together.”

One person who was satisfied with Simmons’ speech was Victor Papa, president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, which has supported thousands of area residents — including those at Knickerbocker Village — with donations and deliveries since the storm hit.

Papa acknowledged that Knickerbocker’s ownership had initially been too tight-lipped. But he gave Simmons and AREA credit for finally admitting to their communicative shortcomings and for outlining the reasons why they couldn’t immediately remove the water from the basement.

“They redeemed themselves,” he said. “They regained my respect.”

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