City Housing Authority tenants who went without heat or hot water last winter deserve rent refunds for all the days they spent shivering in their apartments, the Legal Aid Society charged in a lawsuit Thursday.
Roughly 143,000 out of 175,000 housing units — or 323,098 people — are potentially eligible to join the class action case. That's over 80% of public housing residents.
Damages could be as high as $20 million, according to Legal Aid estimates.
“This denial of heat and hot water was more than just ‘staggering’ and ‘unacceptable,’ NYCHA left tenants to fend for themselves,” Legal Aid writes in the suit, referencing NYCHA officials’ own descriptions of the awful winter.
“Many did so by layering on clothes and blankets and attempting to warm their homes via stoves and/or space heaters and boiling their own hot water.”
The suit claims NYCHA sought to minimize the crisis by “cooking the books.”
In one example, a NYCHA spokesperson said “97% of apartments had consistent heat.” NYCHA was ultimately forced to admit that was not true, the suit said.
NYCHA also claimed the average heat and hot water outage from October 2017 to January was roughly two days. But Legal Aid says many tenants say they were without either for much longer periods. Some were freezing in their homes for over a week.
The suit was filed by A'Seelah Diamond, a tenant of Fiorentino Plaza in Brooklyn and Ruth Britt, who lives in the Patterson Houses in the Bronx.
Diamond, her husband and three kids between the ages of 2 and 11-years-old slept together under multiple comforters in December and January during heat outages, the suit alleges.
“I feel like they treat the tenants like they're less than human. It's just not fair,” said Diamond, 31.
“I realized what a poor condition me and my family had to live in.”
From October 2017 to January, Britt was completely without heat, the suit said.
Lucy Newman, a Legal Aid attorney, believed the full scope of the heating crisis was not yet known.
“It was historic cold weather and these people suffered. NYCHA needs to pay for it,” Newman said.
The “bomb cyclone” that blasted the East Coast with heavy snow and strong winds in January was one of the most powerful storms the region has seen.
Mayor de Blasio has committed $200 million to upgrade boilers and heating systems at NYCHA buildings. Gov. Cuomo has declared a state of emergency at the authority.
“Every dollar spent on a rent abatement would be one less dollar for staff and repairs that we need to restore and maintain heat service. That is ultimately what our residents need,” NYCHA spokeswoman Jasmine Blake said of the suit.
NYCHA chairwoman Shola Olatoye announced Tuesday she would resign after months of criticism for myriad problems at the authority, including the lack of heat.
Vernell Britt, 54, who has lived at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway her entire life, said it is “ridiculous” that she should pay her full $1,200 rent while enduring the brutal winter conditions.
“You thought it was warmer outside than it was inside the apartment. It was an ice box," she said, describing her apartment in January.
“We froze, we were sleeping in sweaters.”