High electric bills have Gateway Plaza tenants hot

Ice forms inside unsealed windows at Gateway Plaza. December 2013 file photo courtesy of the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association.

Ice forms inside unsealed windows at Gateway Plaza. December 2013 file photo courtesy of the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association.

BY SAM SPOKONY |  ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 6, 2014  |  Gateway Plaza tenants are outraged over their incredibly high electric bills this winter — some of which surpassed $1,000 — and are still calling on their landlord to complete long-overdue repairs that would make their buildings more energy efficient.

“We’re in electric shock, as Gateway is in an electric bill crisis,” said Glenn Plaskin, president of the tenant association for the six-building, 1,700-unit complex in Battery Park City. “Management attributes skyrocketing costs to rising Con Edison rates and sub-zero temperatures, and while those things are both true, the underlying cause of these astronomical energy bills is the condition of our buildings.”

Gateway’s landlord, the LeFrak Organization, has been heavily criticized by tenants and local politicians after failing to keep a promise — made more than a year ago — to replace or upgrade all of the complex’s leaky windows, poor insulation and aging heating units by the end of 2013. As of now, none of the windows have been replaced, only around 500 out of 4,000 heating units have been replaced and the insulation remains subpar, according to Plaskin.

The tenant leader also pointed out that since Gateway’s electric meters are now 33 years old, he and many other tenants believe they could be giving faulty readings and should also be replaced. The whole situation, he said, goes at odds with the fact that Gateway is marketed as a “luxury” housing complex.

“Do we call this property luxury,” Plaskin wondered. “With snow, ice, rain and cold air insinuating itself into apartments, tenants are suffering both physically and financially. It’s very sad when tenants with young children tell me its difficult to keep their children warm.”

As with some other developments around the city, Gateway tenants are not billed directly by Con Ed for their electricity use. Instead, LeFrak buys energy in bulk from the utility company and then acts as a middle man in billing the residents.

And while Con Ed did raise its prices this winter — according to Gateway’s bills, the costs rose about 20 percent from 21 cents per kilowatt hour in December to 25 cents per kilowatt hour in January — tenants at the complex saw their costs increase at a much, much higher rate, even though they claimed not to have used any more energy.

Gateway tenant Nancy Chambers, 70, said the bills for her one-bedroom apartment nearly doubled this winter, from just over $300 for December to $567 for January. She and her husband, who both live on a fixed income through Social Security, had to borrow money just cover those costs, even as they’ve remained shivering cold due to the shoddy windows, bad insulation and a fear of racking up even higher fees by trying to warm their home.

“I’m sitting here in the cold, under blankets, and I’m too scared to crank the heat,” she said. “I don’t want to move…I want to stay here, but I just want to be warm, and I shouldn’t have to borrow money just to pay these bills.”

William Couig also lives in a one-bedroom apartment at Gateway, with his wife and young daughter, and although he said his use of heat didn’t increase, his bill similarly shot up from around $300 for December to more than $500 for January.

“When I called management to complain about the bill, they didn’t even want to talk about the subject,” said Couig. “They posted these notices throughout the building saying that Con Ed had raised its prices, trying to say that’s why the bills were so much higher.”

However, weeks after Couig’s original complaint went unheeded, a management employee stopped by to read his electric meter.

“[That worker] said there were some abnormalities with the meter, maybe some spikes, and he said he wanted to come look at it again,” Couig explained. “That was a couple of weeks ago, and we haven’t heard back from them yet.”

And Tom Goodkind, a Community Board 1 member who lives in a two-bedroom apartment at Gateway with his wife and children, said he somehow racked up an exorbitantly high January bill — just over $1,000.

“And everything is unplugged all day while we’re all at work and school,” said Goodkind. “There’s just something wrong here.”

A LeFrak spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about possible meter abnormalities that may have led to the absurdly high electric bills.

But in a statement responding to questions about the overdue building repairs — which could improve the complex’s energy efficiency — the landlord seemed less worried about completing the repairs than about using them as leverage in its ongoing rent negotiations with the Battery Park City Authority, the state organization which is effectively LeFrak’s landlord.

“Gateway has engaged in productive discussions with agencies of the State of New York, its regulator and ground-landlord, in the hopes of making adjustments to its outdated ground lease to facilitate investments at the property,” said the landlord’s spokesperson in the March 4 statement.

The B.P.C.A. declined to comment on the situation.

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has met with both the B.P.C.A. and Gateway’s tenant association to discuss the issue, and said in a March 5 statement that they’re all working together as part of an “ongoing effort” to make the repairs and upgrades. But he had took a strong stance against the current living situations at the complex.

“I have made clear that residents of Gateway Plaza should not have to pay sky-high electric bills for poorly insulated apartments,” said Silver, who has negotiated past Gateway rent agreements with LeFrak for over two decades. “I am encouraged that discussions are now taking place with Gateway’s owner, and I am committed to ensuring that these unacceptable conditions are fixed as soon as possible.”

And State Sen. Daniel Squadron — who has pushed for the repairs ever since working with LeFrak and Gateway’s T.A. to conduct an energy audit of the complex in 2012 — responded to LeFrak’s terse statement by once again calling on the landlord to simply honor its previous commitment.

“At a meeting last February, Gateway residents were promised basic repairs and energy efficiency upgrades,” Squadron told Downtown Express on March 4. “Now, 13 months later, they’re still waiting for the promise to be kept. That’s simply wrong.”

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