NYC heat inspection absurdity

I want to start this post by saying I’m very pro-government. I believe that a well-organized, responsive government is possible and achievable. Where citizens sour toward government, I think, is because so often, municipalities are (a) underfunded (b) run by corrupt officials © illogically organized (d) run and staffed by people who don’t care.

My apartment has been with intermittent heat and very little hot water since heating season began this fall (end of October). In this time, my experience with New York City government has been largely discouraging, primarily because of factors © and (d) above, and probably (a). (There could be corruption as well, I just don’t know about it).

The main problem, aside from the fact that my building manager is evidently a greedy bastard, centers around the mechanism for getting this problem fixed: the city’s heat and hot water complaint system. It is illogical and inefficient. To start, you must file a complaint with 311, NYC’s one-stop government hotline. 311 takes your address and phone number and tells you an inspector will come within 48-72 hours. You ask if you can know when the inspector might come. They say that they cannot schedule inspections. An inspector comes. Most likely you’re not home. You get a notice that an inspector was here while you were out and that you should call 311 to schedule another inspection. And the cycle continues.

Yesterday, I got a number from a legal services hotline for the agency that makes the inspections. This is the number that 311 will not give you.  I was told I might actually be able to schedule an inspection with this agency, which is the code enforcement section of NYC’s Housing Preservation Department.

Today I called that number, which is supposed to go to an office on Euclid Ave. in Brooklyn. Someone answered right away, and I explained my problem. He told me that inspectors come unannounced and must deal with 20,000 heat and hot water complaints a day. I thought it was a poor response. I told him that we had tried unsuccessfully to get an inspector to come several times. He asked if we had filed 311 complaints. Yes, three times now. So have two other people in my building, I said. I also said that I understand and feel bad that the city does not have the capacity to deal with the high number of heat and hot water complaints, but that it only compounds the problem if inspectors have to return to a dwelling multiple times because they can’t schedule a time when tenants are present. He then responded, okay, hold on one second.

He came back and asked to take my number and my super’s  number for an inspector to come. I gave him mine, and he told me he couldn’t take it because it was a long distance number, and inspector’s don’t make long distance calls (I still have my number from Chicago). He said this is the reason why I haven’t gotten calls from the inspector before coming over. I pointed out that (a) even if I did get a call from an inspector before coming over, it would not matter if I was not home (b) I was never told by 311 that the long distance number is an issue. If I had been told that I would have given them my roommate’s number, which is local and my work number. (Also, I did once get a call from an inspector to my number).

This exchange is only the most recent instance of an interaction with a government official that has been largely unhelpful and discouraging. I hold out hope an inspector will come today, this weekend or next week. However, I can’t help but be saddened and angry that this man, Inspector Squaw, was so unconcerned with the actual problem and making sure an inspector comes and much more concerned with telling me all of the reasons that an inspector has not shown up. 

I am not saying that all inspectors are like him. I have no way of knowing. And I am entirely sympathetic if they are indeed overtaxed and under-resourced. This is one of the reasons I’m so against funding cuts to government agencies. However the illogic of a system that sends tenants into a vicious cycle of non-responsiveness really gets me. Between city and state taxes, New Yorkers pay some of the highest taxes in this country. Put simply, we deserve great municipal services.

I want to emphasize that I am not the kind of passive person who believes the government owes me something and I owe it nothing. I have this entire time been incredibly willing to do whatever I can to get this resolved. I have put flyers under my fellow tenants’ doors to find out who else is having the same problem and have heard from several people. I have called the city to file complaints several times, after having exasperating experiences with building management. I will probably seek to organize my building if other tenants are interested. I believe it is my responsibility as a citizen to do so. I also support taxes when put to good use. And I have encountered one or two city workers who have been gratifyingly helpful. But I can’t help but think that the current system is emblematic of so many problems our nation is facing today:

(1) There’s the government for the rich and the government for everyone else. There’s no way a rich person would have to go through the kind of hoops I have gone through over lack of heat. Even if s/he had to deal with city agencies, s/he would have the influence to get that agency to do what s/he needed it to do. The rest of us have to deal with the labrynthine process I described above, a system that will probably get worse from government cuts. 

(2) Litigiousness is an unfortunate byproduct of an inefficient and unresponsive government. Because of this system, citizens are incentivized to go to court to sue their landlord. This state of affairs bolsters a point I have heard before, which is that the reason America is such a litigious society is not because most people are ambulance chasers but because going through other channels is discouraging and ineffective. 

I’m sure I can think of more, but right now I just want to get this heating problem resolved. If you are having the same problem, I’d greatly appreciate any advice you have on various avenues to take, including the wisdom of rent withholding and/or filing an action in housing court. Also, one link I’ve found extremely helpful is this: