NYC
11/14/2012 04:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 14, 2012

Manhattan Residents Displaced By Sandy Still Waiting For Answers Weeks Later

Nancy Gregory braced herself for the long walk.

"We're going to climb 17 stories now, in the dark," said Gregory, who stood with a duffel bag under her arm one day last week in Lower Manhattan outside the residential building at 2 Gold Street.

Gregory was collecting clothes for her daughter, Chelsea, who would be staying with her in New Jersey indefinitely and commuting two and a half hours each day to work while the building's equipment undergoes repairs following its extensive damage -- 31 feet of flooding and contaminated fuel oil in the basement, to be exact -- from Hurricane Sandy.

2 Gold is among several residential buildings in Manhattan that remain uninhabitable and without power more than two weeks after the storm hit. The timeline for tenants to return to such buildings has been a moving target because equipment needs to be assessed, repaired, tested and proven safe.

But residents say that's not entirely the problem. They claim, rather, that the real problem has been the lack of relevant information provided in the aftermath of the storm, and the feeling that they've had to fight tooth and nail for what details they have received.

"Sporadic" and "vague" were the words Gregory used to describe communication from the management at 2 Gold immediately following the storm. Residents responded by creating their own Facebook group to share information; the page now has over 600 members.

Frank Marino, a spokesman for TF Cornerstone, the building's manager, noted that their own offices were without power for a week following the storm.

"They tried everything within their means to communicate with residents," Marino said. "There was staff at the building continuously throughout for anyone who went by there. As soon as they had information, they were putting it up through social media and ultimately the building's website."

Marco Tavares, 32, another tenant of 2 Gold, said he does feel more informed about the situation now, but only as of the last few days.

"My whole assessment is that at first they were quiet for too long," said Tavares. "They're being a little bit more informative with exactly what happened, but it's now two weeks later."

Tavares' lease is set to expire in January, but 2 Gold estimates it won't reopen until March 1. Unable to get answers about the terms -- or the rent -- for a new lease, Tavares said he feels stuck in a holding pattern of not knowing if it might be better to give up and move somewhere else.

Still, the displaced residents of other Manhattan buildings say the quality of information that's been communicated post-storm is all relative.

"2 Gold St. is living the dream compared to my building, in terms of response and sense of professionalism," said Krystyna Lijek, 23, a tenant of 90 Washington Street, who has been staying with friends for two weeks on the Upper East Side.

At 2 Gold, residents were told relatively early on that they could break their leases and that they would not be required to pay November rent. At 90 Washington, on the other hand, Lijek says residents had to pay rent despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to live in the building.

After demanding a 'frequently asked questions' form from management, Lijek said her request was granted two days later and then ended up being too vague to be useful.

"They didn't address whether we could break our leases or not. They didn't address a phone number to reach an actual person," said Lijek. "They didn't address an estimated date of return."

Natan Edelsburg, 25, another resident at 90 Washington, who is currently living with his parents, has been equally outraged by the circumstances he and his neighbors are facing.

"I want to move on with my life, and it's felt like they're holding me hostage to this lease when the timeline for getting back in keeps getting changed," said Edelsburg. "We now have a very strong Google group going that includes hundred of residents who feel they aren't getting enough information, and don't feel it's being communicated in an appropriate and moral way."

According to Eric Gerard, a company spokesperson for the Moinian Group, which owns 90 Washington, tenants may be able to move back in by the end of the week if the testing of its equipment goes well. Gerard produced emails for The Huffington Post from the building to its residents as evidence of its ongoing communications after the storm.

The updates were sent daily, but tenants still fault the emails for a focus on the damages and the steps being taken to remedy them, rather than addressing the issues about which they were most concerned, like a timeline for moving back in and questions about rent and their leases.

Gerard explained in an email that a provision in 90 Washington leases allows residents to break their lease once an apartment has been unlivable for a minimum of 30 days. He also said that many of tenants' questions simply could not be answered until the extent of the damage was evaluated.

The company recently announced in a press release that they would be prorating November's rent, but David Ng, a Manhattan attorney, said that if a landlord hasn't made his apartments habitable to his tenants, he doesn't have a case to demand rent in the first place.

"It's obvious that the apartment is uninhabitable and they haven't restored the service and people have not been living there, so they should have not been asking for rent," said Ng.

Still, that hasn't stopped management companies from trying. Devi Nampiaparampil, 35, a physician, has been unable to stay at her apartment in the Rivergate on 34th Street for any of the month November, but she has also already paid her rent.

"When everybody was basically homeless, they were sending us emails about how we had to pay the rent," she said.

The Rivergate's heat only came back on as of Nov. 13, and hot water still hasn't been restored. Only after backlash erupted over having to pay full rent, Nampiaparampil said, did there come an announcement that it would be prorated.

Nampiaparampil said what's been especially lacking is an estimate as to when she might be able to return to her apartment, especially since she's been living with her brother and his wife in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights.

Many questions, she said, remain unanswered.

"Everyone who is walking in and out of there that works there is wearing a gas mask ... like a medical mask to protect themselves from the debris," she said. "People are posting online about this, like, 'Should we be wearing masks if we're in the building?'"

A representative for the Rivergate declined to comment and referred The Huffington Post to the building's website, where the latest update is that it could be fully operational by the end of the week.

Though tenants of the Rivergate and other buildings may not like the waiting game, Ng, the attorney, said there's little on their side with regard to a right to information, even to so much as an estimate of when they can move home.

"These are unusual circumstances, obviously," Ng said. "But there's no law that says, if you make a request for specific information, that the landlord has to respond and give you that specific answer."

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