Death by Degree?
Prosecutors in the Brooklyn district attorney's office are investigating the death of an elderly woman who died in July after temperatures in her Brownsville building exceeded 100 degrees--a heat wave tenants and some housing officials say began when the landlord blasted the boiler nonstop. The owner, 78-year-old Absolum M. Hunter, however, denies tampering with the heat.
Police found tenant Lena Hurt dead in her second-floor apartment at 1834 Park Place near Eastern Parkway on July 21. For at least two weeks in June, tenants say they endured sweltering heat from radiators they could not regulate; only the landlord and his workers had keys to the boiler room. City inspection reports recorded temperatures as high as 109 degrees.
Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the medical examiner, says heart disease is the official cause of death. Though the body has not been positively identified, Borakove says it is presumed to be Hurt's and estimated to be about 80 years old. So far, no family has been located. ''The facts and circumstances of this incident are under investigation,'' says a spokesman for Brooklyn D.A. Charlie Hynes. ''No conclusions have been drawn.''
Hurt and Hunter had feuded for most of her five-year tenancy. This May, Hunter sued Hurt for $12,800--nearly three years' worth of Hurt's $400 rent. In court papers, she said she withheld rent because of decrepit conditions, which Hurt claimed in June included broken kitchen appliances, no hot water, and heat turned ''on in the summer.'' Indeed, just six days earlier, an investigator from the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) had recorded a temperature of 104 degrees in Hurt's apartment, and 109 degrees in an apartment above hers.
In an interview, Hunter blamed Hurt for refusing to let repairmen in over the years. As for the summer heat, he said, ''she ran the boiler up by running the hot water all the time. If you do that, it sets the thermostat on the boiler up.'' Why would Hurt do something that would make her own life miserable? Said Hunter, ''She was the devil.''
To Hunter, Hurt was indeed a likely source of irritation: She routinely complained to both city and state housing agencies and took Hunter to housing court. Other tenants sometimes joined her. In 1997, she and three tenants sued Hunter for dozens of housing violations--a suit that landed Hunter a whopping $57,625 fine. In June, she and two other tenants filed harassment charges against Hunter with the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR); hearings are scheduled for late October.
''Lena was really the impetus for a lot of things the tenants did,'' says Larry Jayson of the Brooklyn Tenants Council, who is representing Hunter's tenants at DHCR. ''She got things going.''
Hunter denies turning up the heat. But he made clear his desire to be rid of Hurt--and the other nonpaying tenants--when he told Channel 4 newsman John Noel, ''I'm not trying to force [the tenants] out, but I want them out because they don't pay rent. . . .'' Noel reported on the extreme heat in the building in mid-June, interviewing both Hurt and Hunter, and adding that the heat abated only after firefighters broke into the basement and turned the boiler off. Hurt died several weeks after Noel's report.
''Look,'' says one attorney familiar with the case. ''You have the landlord saying he prefers these tenants out. You have the extreme heat. And you have a dead body. There's at least a possible charge of reckless endangerment here.''
Hunter calls that theory ridiculous. ''How could the heat have anything do with her death?'' he asked the Voice. ''As far as I was told, it was a heart condition. A whole lot of people have heart attacks. I can't say she had a heart attack because she was living here.''
While the D.A.'s probe is ongoing, Hunter last week escaped the efforts of another agency to put him in jail. HPD attorney Abbott Gorin argued to Brooklyn housing court judge Marc Finkelstein that Hunter should be locked up for contempt of court because, Gorin alleged, he broke an agreement to provide hot water and keep away from the boiler. HPD inspectors found the ''hot'' water in June was 64 degrees. But Finkelstein opted against jailing Hunter because the hot water now works and because the only statement alleging that Hunter interfered with the boiler came from Hurt--whose death turned her affidavit into ''hearsay,'' according to Hunter's attorney Thomas Pruzan.
Hunter's tenants may have hot water now, but the building is far from decent. The lobby and hallways reek with the acrid smell that means rats abound. On the third floor, rope is tethered together in place of missing banisters that have left a space big enough for an adult to fall through. One apartment is vacant and trashed; mice and roaches scamper when a partly opened door is pushed. HPD counts a mind-boggling 723 housing violations for this six-unit walk-up, including 327 considered immediately hazardous.
''Out of Order,'' announces a sign on the bathroom in apartment 2R, where Carolyn Dowling has lived for a year. Neither her toilet nor tub works, and a gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling affords a view of the rafters above. In her bedroom, plaster that fell in January has left a three-foot by two-foot hole.
''I have to go next door or to my mother's to use the bathroom,'' says Dowling, who has an infant son. Hunter ''told me he had a tank for my toilet a month ago, but I haven't seen it.'' Hunter charges $500 a month for the one-bedroom, Dowling says, and welfare pays him $250 a month direct. But she won't pay the balance until he makes repairs.
Hunter says tenants are to report problems to a managing agent, and that if trouble persists, it's because they haven't done so. He says a manager he hired earlier this year has made improvements, but was unable to name any: ''I don't know all he did and didn't do.''
The landlord reasons that he can hardly make repairs--or pay overdue taxes, which now total at least $81,358--if tenants withhold rent. He says he generally collects about half the rent he charges--the part paid by government. Hunter says he bought the building 25 years ago with earnings he had made as a machinist. He lives across the street in a three-unit building that has 41 violations and an overdue tax bill of $4562.
Hunter blames his tenants for bad conditions, like the missing banisters. ''The people up there are so violent, they knock them out,'' says Hunter. He dismisses the danger, saying ''it's a minor thing that could be fixed in 25 or 30 minutes.''
Heat has long been a problem at the Park Place building, though typically, the trouble has been its absence. HPD has twice sued Hunter for failing to provide heat and hot water in the winter; inspection reports from one mid-March 1997 day show indoor temperatures of 56 degrees--a mere 14 degrees warmer than the outdoor air.
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