Tenants in a building on East 14th Street say flooding from Hurricane Sandy spilled chemicals in the basement which have contaminated their apartments with an odor that caused headaches and nausea, but their landlord–the same family who owns the Second Avenue Deli– is dragging its feet in fixing the problem.
Some tenants of 642 East 14th St. got so fed up with the smell that they broke their lease and left the building for good. Others have left temporarily. One resident who stayed has had to take his child twice to the hospital.
Ben Schiff,38, a construction superintendent, and his fiancee broke their lease and moved out because of the smell. “As you walk in the door, you get itchy eyes, a little light-headed, a taste in back of throat and then you start to get a headache,” he says. “As soon as you leave you get a splitting headache, about 15 minutes later. That can last all day.”
Schiff says he complained soon after the storm about the smell, but he was told by building management there was no smell. Next, he asked out of the lease, and was denied. After sparring with the management firm for more than two weeks, he was finally let free of the lease.
“First they told me nothing wrong with the building, and they said you’ll be responsible,” he says. “The amount of verbal untruths that were told is phenomoenal.”
The building is owned by the Lebewohl family, which also owns the Second Avenue Deli, which keeps space in the building for a catering business. A call to Jack Lebewohl was not returned. Jonathan Ruhl, who works for the management company, Ranger Management, did not return emails and a telephone message. The building super declined comment.
Now living in a hotel, Schiff says their possessions, which are in a storage locker, still reek of chemicals, which he surmises comes from heating oil spilled in the flooding. He added that the landlord did nothing to prepare for the storm, and neither the management company nor the owners will say what caused the smell.
Other tenants, who asked not to be named, say the building’s management company accused them of paranoia. They said on Nov. 1 a woman smelled the odor from the street and called the NYPD to get into the basement, which she saw buckets floating in reddish water.
On Nov. 2, workers cleared out the basement, but the smell remained just as strong. Con-Edison workers refused to work in the basement because of the fumes. An effort was made to scrub the smell away on Nov. 4, but it didn’t work.
On Nov. 7, health department officials found high levels of chemicals in the building, and failed an inspection one week later because the problem remained unsolved.
On Nov. 21, tenants sent a joint letter to Ranger Management, demanding “the immediate remediation of the as-of-yet unidentified, and potentially toxic air quality in our residentiat and common areas within the building.”
On Nov. 27, Ranger management declared it planned to remove an old oil tank and power wash the basement. A state environmental inspector told tenants if that did not work, more extensive measures would be required. Whether the power washing took place is unclear, but the smell remained.