Water leaked from the toilet into Shimon Shuchat ’19 and Mei Zheng ’18’s bathroom on September 24, collapsing part of the ceiling of the apartment below them. The students had turned off all carbon monoxide alarms and smoke detectors in the apartment, and the gas oven was left on to heat the apartment while they slept.
Tenants’ back-and-forth for months with landlords David and Barbara Lower would eventually lead to multiple home inspections, a threat of a city lawsuit, and rent withholding. The stress of the situation would cause Shuchat to give up living in the house altogether, leaving behind many of his belongings and the food in the refrigerator.
Like many off-campus accommodation, 117 Thurston is a detached house divided into separate apartments. A creaky wooden staircase leads outside Zheng and Shuchat’s fourth-floor apartment. The level behind the building is so steep that a bridge over the hill provides a second entrance directly to their door. County records estimate the property to be 103 years old.
Expired certificate: a missed warning sign
Shuchat said it was only after signing the lease that he and Zheng found out that Thurston’s house did not have a certificate of conformity, which is a document legally required for all dwellings under the code of the city.
Certificates of compliance are required to ensure that accommodations are regularly audited to ensure that they comply with all applicable housing laws. Single and two-family dwellings should be inspected every five years, and buildings with multiple or more dwellings more than five unrelated individual occupants must be inspected every three years, according to city code. 117 Thurston contains four units, and an email from the Ithaca Construction Department indicated that its certificate expired on November 18, 2015.
“What she did was she posted for another apartment for which she had a certificate of conformity. When I contacted her about it [home] she directed me to the other apartment, ”Shuchat said, calling the maneuver a“ bait and switch ”. Emails obtained by The Sun corroborate this account, showing Lower redirected him to the Thurston property citing a lack of availability in the apartment initially requested by Shuchat.
The Lows own several properties in the Ithaca area, including at least two other Collegetown properties currently leased by Cornell students, homes located at 626-28 and 115 Stewart Ave.
After investigating the house’s certificate of conformity, Barbara claimed that a certificate was “good to have” but “not necessary”. Ithaca city code enforcement director Mike Niechwiadowicz directly contradicted him: he told the Sun in an email that certificates are required for all housing.
Problems from the start: overflowing toilets, no hot water
Although Zheng and Shuchat were not aware of the expiration of the certificate until they moved in, they said it didn’t take long for the problems to start to crop up.
“The first problem we started to have was that the toilets were overflowing regularly. At least once every five days, ”Shuchat said, noting that the problem started in early August. Renters also reported a period of about three days starting August 20 without hot water.
In emails to tenants, Barbara responded to their concerns about the toilets by asking them if they had dipped them or cleaned up the resulting overflows before offering to send help. Barbara has also repeatedly denied via email that there were any issues with the hot water.
On September 23, the toilet completely overflowed, flooding the bathroom and causing several ceiling tiles from the apartment below to fall, disturbing residents living downstairs and prompting the two students to act.
Zheng and Shuchat described their complaints about plumbing, hot water and other issues in a three-page letter to Barbara and housing inspector Julie Daum on September 27. The letter requested a home inspection, which Daum carried out the next day.
The inspection report confirmed that toilets had overflowed in three apartments, causing damage to the ceilings. One section said that “the carpet outside the bathroom probably gets wet with sewage. Please clean, disinfect and dry the floors / ceilings in all apartments and immediately correct the sewage drainage for the whole building.
In an interview a month after the first inspection, the Lows argued that the students’ actions – not the plumbing system – were to blame.
“We thought maybe we could change the toilet, that way they wouldn’t have the problem of too many things going in there or whatever, because obviously they didn’t know how to use the plunger.” Barbara said. “We did everything to appease them… and like I said it wasn’t the plumbing.
“Insufficient” heating in the cold of Ithaca
As winter approached, heating in the apartment became a growing concern for Shuchat and Zheng. A follow-up inspection on Oct. 29 confirmed that the apartment’s heat was “insufficient,” several boilers were not working and the entire apartment was below the minimum temperature required by law, according to the report. inspection.
In the previous weeks, Shuchat and Zheng had resorted to heating their apartment with the gas oven in the kitchen between their bedrooms, disabling smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms so that they did not go off during their sleep.
“[Zheng] literally sleeps in a room with the window closed with a gas oven right next to the room, very often on high heat at night without supervision … God forbid, I already got home one night and closed the living room window by accident without thinking, you can predict very easily what’s going to happen, ”Shuchat said in an Oct. 30 interview with The Sun.
As with the plumbing issues, Barbara denied any systemic issues with the heating in a statement that contradicted both the building department’s findings and, at times, themselves.
“We went there yesterday and the heaters all worked, it was just the one that didn’t… It got fixed today but they all worked anyway,” Barbara said in an interview.
The inspector, however, did not consider the heat problem as, in his own words, “solved”: the inspection report of October 29 noted that only one of the three boilers appeared to be working, and noted in one e -mail to Zheng the day after the interview that the heating had not been resolved.
After Zheng sent photos of thermometers measuring below the legal minimum temperature, Daum emailed the owners on November 7 stating that the apartment violated New York State and local code requirements, and said the heat issues were to be repaired immediately.
As the central heating in the apartment did not work well, the students relied on radiators. Unfortunately, the apartment does not have the electrical power to support more than two heaters, and their extra load on electricity contributed to a power outage on October 29, according to Barbara.
Shuchat and Zheng first turned to the building service as a means of protection, but Shuchat came to see them on the same accusatory terms as their owners.
“At the moment, we are at the point where we have no faith in the construction department,” Shuchat said in an interview in late October. “We both sent them very select emails telling them what they were doing was not right. ”
It is not clear whether the building department can use more drastic measures than a written warning to force homeowners to fix building issues. The building department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Fire Marshal Gillian Haines-Sharp warned Shuchat in an email that using the oven could cause carbon monoxide poisoning and asked him not to turn off the CO alarms. Daum later told Shuchat that continued use of the oven “could lead to criminal charges against the tenant for choosing to endanger other residents,” according to a Nov. 8 email obtained. by The Sun.
Shuchat and Zheng were faced with very limited recourse options as the days got colder and the heat went unchecked. The first available hearing date in small claims court was February 7 and a re-inspection for a certificate of compliance was not scheduled until December 5.
Zheng and Shuchat’s solution amounted to a hostage rent negotiation. “We paid the rent. It is held in an account with Tompkins Trust. First of all, the bathroom heating and drainage need to be fixed, ”Zheng told Barbara in an email.
After the building department threatened legal action for using the oven as a heat source, Zheng stopped seeing Shuchat in the apartment. On November 19 – 53 days after the initial complaint – Daum reported that the heater had been repaired, but Shuchat did not return, according to Zheng.
Shuchat told The Sun that the threat of a lawsuit from the Construction Department and the stress of dealing with the situation prompted him to leave. He started sleeping in an on-campus library and was looking for off-campus accommodation for the following year.
“Submit complaints to IBD [Ithaca Building Department] overall was a huge mistake and a waste of time. Living without adequate sewers and heating is better than facing these clowns, ”Shuchat said in an email. “At this point, I consider IBDs to be worse than homeowners. ”