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I rent a $2,150/month studio with my girlfriend at 90 Washington Street, a 398-unit building located in the devastated Zone A of Manhattan.
Two weeks ago I couldn't have imagined that I'd currently be evacuated from my home--this is Manhattan right? These things don't happen here.
Wrong. Last Sunday morning, a day before Hurricane Sandy, our hot water was shut off by ConEd as a pre-emptive measure (according to management), and we smartly decided at that point to leave because we realized that power would be shut off either by the building or by ConEd as a pre-emptive measure, as it was during Irene (which happened a week before we moved into the building).
We grabbed our iPhones, iPads, Macbooks, some clothing and travel toiletries and planned on spending one annoying night away that would turn into a quick return home.
By that point an evacuation order had already been implemented by the city for Zone A.
Ten days later, we're still staying with family uptown, as we eagerly await a return to normal life. My building has been deemed "UNSAFE" by the Department of Buildings and management and we have yet to even receive a timeline on when we'll be able to return.
Our neighbors and I have recently united by sharing our questions and concerns with each other and doing our best to get the answers we need from the management of the building that controls our homes.
Based on my experience, I've put together some tips on how tenants can activate the community in their buildings and how building managements can (and should) effectively help and communicate with residents.
Bottom line: Landlords need to realize that giant buildings like the one I live in are basically a small village. In times of crisis like this they must step up and function as the Mayor, the police, the sanitation service, and 311. It's good for business (I guarantee you that I am not the only one who will Google around for information on how my next landlord behaved during this crisis), and it's a moral and civic obligation.
TIPS FOR MANAGEMENT
- Don't force us to rely completely on Building Link and vague daily emails for information. Building Link, an online communication system our building and many others use, isn't always kept up to date by management (90 Washington's Building Link lists a contact who's no longer with the company). Offer a phone number hot line immediately, and create a Facebook and Twitter account to share hourly updates about exactly what is going on. (90 Washington finally offered a phone number to call after we begged them to do so.)
- Tell residents the information they want to know most and update them often. The communications we've been receiving have been the opposite of helpful, with essential details missing that we need to help us figure out how to plan for the future. There are two things we need to know: Can we break our lease at no additional charge, and what is the estimated timetable for the repairs? We haven't been given this at all yet. Management should share as many details as possible, and frequently. Once a day isn't enough. Send pictures, provide hourly updates and let residents know who is in charge of repairing the damage (for example, in our case a company called Response Electric is being managed by someone who works for the director of operations at management, which I had to find out on my own by desperately asking people at the building). A Q&A was eventually provided and we're constantly asking for more details.
- Let residents hear directly from your very top executive because when residents get desperate they need to see that top management is aware of their suffering. We've tried communicating directly with the CEO of the company that owns our building, but so far he has refused to communicate directly back to us, with the semi-exception of a press release 8 days after the hurricane saying we would all receive a rent credit for the time we're displaced. Your top leader should send emails of support and make it very clear that he/she/you are available and open for feedback and we're hoping he addresses residents directly soon.
- Be in touch with FEMA as much as possible on behalf of your residents. Call FEMA the second the building is deemed unlivable so as residents call, FEMA is aware of our situation.There's intense confusion among residents about FEMA and the status of our applications -- FEMA seems to be used to dealing with individual houses and confusion exists as they try to schedule individual appointments to inspect a building. (While our building hasn't helped contact FEMA to make sure they know our building is unsafe, some residents have received money and those residents are helping others with their application).
- Try to offer alternative housing at decent rates. Other buildings have offered residents temporary housing, while we weren't offered anything for over a week. Recently we were emailed terrible AirBnB options or luxury apartments that would cost us $300 or $400/night as if management was trying to financially benefit from our turmoil. At a minimum offer residents a chance to break the lease, and make it clear immediately that we won't owe rent for the time we are not living in our homes.
- Management should be providing blankets, flashlights and lights to illuminate the hallway. None of this has been done at my building. When I went there, our doormen were shivering and confused about what was going on. Pizza was brought to the doormen the day after the storm, but since then, every day our neighbors see them getting more and more restless making us concerned for them and for the protection of our property.
TIPS FOR RESIDENTS
- Voice your concerns with higher management. After almost a week of terrible communications, I emailed all of the individuals that make up our management and our building's owner to demand better answers. Most email addresses are publicly listed on company websites. Find out who's in charge of your management and put pressure on them if good communication doesn't come from elsewhere. We're currently in the process of scheduling a meeting with the CEO of the company that manages our building (not the company that owns it and holds our leases). She's been extremely responsive and we even text message now.
- Verify that what you're being told is the truth. If possible, stop by your building and ask as many questions as possible. When we lost trust in management, I went down to the building and asked around to see what was going on. Often the electric workers and contractors are happy to share exactly what's going on. For example, I saw someone coming from our basement, asked them their name, where they worked for and what's going on downstairs. He described the type of equipment they're still checking.
- If security guards have been promised, find out who they are and what company they work for. It's important that your property and building are being sufficiently guarded during a time when the building is unlivable. We live in a building where all guests must be announced, this is even more important when there's no power in the building.
- Unite across social media. Tweet at your management, at their CEOs and at city government officials (they might actually help). We've been organizing tweet campaigns, an email list serv and more to stay united as residents of the building with the same problems. Someone from our City Council's office instantly offered me their cell phone number and has been providing answers and advice and even replying all to my emails to management, when they've provided incorrect information.
- Try to organize an email list via Google Groups or elsewhere. Add people from your building who are out of the loop and friend people on Building Link if you have it to ask for their contact information. Our email list has made it instantly easy to ping the entire group; at least ten emails a day go around where we answer each other's questions and try to help when management isn't. This is a great way to find out if residents are sharing the same concerns as you, considering legal action, or are in trouble.
Natan Edelsburg (http://twitter.com/twatan) is a Financial District resident working in Manhattan.