‘What if we’re next?’ Tenants fire up heaters in frigid building owned by Twin Parks landlord

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Dana Stemoulis, 58, says her Bronx apartment is cold enough to wear a coat in. Jan. 26. |
Photo courtesy Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

This article was originally published on by THE CITY

Tenants at Stratford Tower in Soundview absorbed the news of the deadly fire at Twin Parks Northwest two miles away in The Bronx with dread and alarm.

Their building shares the same owners, Camber Property Group and Belveron Partners, as part of the same state affordable housing program, known as Mitchell Lama.

Stratford tenants had endured an electrical fire last year that wrecked an apartment, though thankfully one that did not spread. A dozen residents who spoke to THE CITY said they use space heaters or electric fireplaces in the winter, some more than one. Another said he uses his kitchen oven to stay warm.

It was a malfunctioning electric space heater that sparked the Twin Parks fire, killing 17.

“The landlord doesn’t give you a choice,” said Rosalina Vilchez, 43, a Stratford Tower tenant. “You’d freeze to death without one in this place.”

Vilchez had a close call last March, when an extension cord her family used to power their TV sparked a fire that caused serious damage to their top-floor apartment and left them homeless for months.

Stratford tenants are demanding repairs from Camber-registered company 1340 Stratford Owner LLC, which has owned the 129-apartment, 11-story building since 2016 and receives federal funding under state and city oversight.

Tenants cited conditions similar to those described by Twin Parks residents before their disaster: heat and hot water problems, drafty windows and malfunctioning smoke alarms.

Camber Properties’ co-founder is Rick Gropper, who was a member of Mayor Eric Adams’ transition committee.

As at all of our properties, we take resident feedback extremely seriously and their safety and comfort is our top priority,” a spokesperson for Camber said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our on-site property manager, Wavecrest Management, to address any existing resident concerns at 1340 Stratford Avenue and any brought to our attention going forward. We encourage residents to contact management with any issues.”

‘I Got Two Heaters Going on Right Now’

Last Wednesday, as the temperature outside plunged to below freezing levels and wind blustered, tenants reported they were without heat or hot water for the second time in as many weeks.

When THE CITY visited that day, the radiators were cold. Yet sometimes tenants choose to brave the cold, bundled in coats, reluctant to run space heaters and risk a disaster like the one in Twin Parks.

“I’m very worried about that,” said 75-year-old Arles Cepeda, who said she uses her space heater less frequently now despite frigid temperatures in her apartment. “Because it’s the same owners, the same problems. What if we’re next?”

1340 Stratford Ave. in The Bronx, Jan. 26, 2022. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Another tenant, Paula Allen, chimed in, noting the heat in her apartment knocked out at 10 that morning. “I got two heaters going on right now,” she said.

In all, tenants have filed 57 building-wide complaints with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, reporting no heat or hot water since October, including on Monday and Tuesday.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have introduced a bill to require heat sensors in all federally funded housing units.

There are 30 heat sensors throughout Stratford Tower, according to a spokesperson for Wavecrest.

The spokesperson added that the average temperature at the building from Dec. 1 through Jan. 31 was 72.8 degrees, and the high was 75.4 degrees.

“Once residents alert building staff of ineffective heat, we urgently complete an initial heat assessment in the unit by checking for operation of in-unit radiators and taking temperature measurements using a digital infrared thermometer,” Susan Camerata, Wavecrest’s chief financial officer, said in a statement.

“All necessary repairs are prioritized to ensure heat is restored,” she added, noting: “1340 Stratford Ave currently has no open heat related HPD violations.”

‘Center of Fine Living’

Advertised in real estate brochures when it was built in 1966 as “the center of fine living,” Stratford Tower today receives funding from the federal government via a Section 8 program contract.

Tenants range from middle-class professionals to small families, retirees and, more recently, people who are formerly homeless.

The Camber Property Group venture purchased Stratford Towers in Dec. 2016, committing two years later to promptly upgrade elevators and apartment circuit breakers. The new landlord agreed to keep the property affordable for 40 years under its agreement with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which must approve any rent increases during that time.

The building is run by Wavecrest Management, which also operates some buildings on behalf of the New York City Housing Authority as part of its Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program.

A Camber Property Group spokesperson said the company has completed $1.6 million in capital repairs, including exterior façade updates, electrical upgrades and elevator modernization.

Tenants say they are still waiting for improvements.

When the fire broke out in her apartment on March 31 last year, “the alarm never went off,” said Vilchez.

And the Stratford Tower tenant association president, Shanita Lawrence, said the building’s heating issues intensified once 1340 Stratford Owner LLC took over.

Shanita Lawrence. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She alleged that a new gas boiler system installed in 2015 by the previous owner, Joel Gluck, began malfunctioning in early 2017.

“Most of the tenants at Stratford Tower experienced a marked decline in apartment warmth these past two winters,” Lawrence wrote in an October 2019 letter to Gropper.

“It appears that your definition of quality affordable housing when it comes to heat is essentially that it doesn’t matter if some tenants are receiving very little heat while other tenants are receiving a great deal of heat as long as the low heat tenants are at or somewhat above the established minimum. The Stratford Tower TA finds this to be unacceptable.”

Gropper responded nearly three weeks later, denying there were any issues: “Please rest assured that your concerns have been and are being taken very seriously. As discussed with you previously, we investigated all reports regarding heat adequacy and found no systemwide or systemic problems.”

“The building’s heat is maintained at or above required levels in all instances; this has been verified via physical inspections with handheld temperature readers as well as digital monitors located throughout the building that continuously provide feedback,” he wrote.

Rent Strike Threat

Heat was knocked out again the last weekend of January as a Nor’easter barrelled over the city dropping eight inches of snow. As of Tuesday evening, several tenants were still without heat or hot water, Lawrence said.

“This is the 2nd frigidly cold weekend this winter with temperatures in the teens that the heat is shutting down for hours at a time. On top of this, there are tenants who have broken radiators that have still not been repaired after years of complaining,” she wrote in an email to building managers and owners on Monday, for the third time in five days.

“There is no reason why I should have to repeat that radiator repair must be a top priority at this point,” she wrote.

A spokesperson for Wavecrest disputed Lawrence’s account and said the building’s were running even hotter over the last two weeks, including this past weekend.

The broken balcony door in Dana Stemoulis’ apartment. Jan. 26, 2022. Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Fifty-eight-year-old Dana Stemoulis, who has lived in Stratford since 2000, says her balcony door makes the apartment so drafty she tapes it shut during the winter, and puts towels on the ground in that door and her front door to keep the apartment warmer.

State records show the owner has committed to replace all balcony doors — but not until the end of 2025.

Morale is so low among Stratford residents that tenants threatened a rent strike in December if the building’s heating system wasn’t fixed swiftly, Lawrence said. It was only then that a representative for the owners began “making himself available for meetings” with the TA board, she said.

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