Fight the Power

5 May

…yea, I don’t think renter woes were exactly what Chuck D and Flavor Flav were talking about.  Nonetheless, management companies and landlords are the powers that I’M fighting right now.

When I first started writing Happy City Living, I thought I’d only be telling stories that had happened to me and to my friends, in the past.  I thought it would be useful for folks to hear, after the fact, about classic city renter situations and to see how they could be handled or resolved.

However, Agent Owens and I recently found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of a VERY common situation for renters, and I thought it might be informative for other city dwellers to watch it all play out.  Here’s what’s going on…

We got an envelope in the mail a few days ago from the management company at The Gate, and it was the dreaded lease-renewal form.  Lease renewals can be unnecessarily frustrating. If landlords always renewed leases at a fair market price, the process might not cause so much agita, but let’s face it, real estate management is a business.  And in this city, it’s a booming business.  So, landlords do everything they can to squeeze all your money out of you, and “fair” flies out the window.

Nine times out of ten, your lease renewal form will show a higher rent than you paid under the terms of your previous lease.  Understandably, the landlord wants to earn more money in rent each year (even though you, as the tenant, probably wish you could pay less!).  This conundrum was the case with the renewal form we received here at The Gate.

When we moved into the apartment last year, the real estate market in the city was at quite a low point.  At the time, landlords were offering all kinds of incentives to entice new tenants.  So, even though The Gate is considered “luxury” (I could tell you a dozen NON-luxurious things about it, but that’s not the point of my current babble), we were able to afford to sign a lease here.

But now, the city is in an upswing, economically (a good thing, overall!), and up comes the real estate market!  So, even though we currently pay $1857 (the net-effective of a $2000/month rent with 1 month free, over a 14 month lease – if your brain just got befuddled, scroll down to the bottom of this post) for our studio apartment, we were suddenly staring at a much higher number when we scanned the new lease proposal.  How much higher, you ask?  Well, for a one-year lease, they offered $2200/month, and for a two-year lease they offered $2310.  These were our faces when we saw those numbers:

Theoretically, we were supposed cut a monthly check for $343-$453 MORE than we’ve been paying this past year.  The management office must have collectively bumped their heads.  Are they nuts?  Who can afford that kind of a price hike?????

So, what are our options?  I’m glad you asked.  Here they are:

  1. Accept the price.  (Oh, hell no)
  2. Move out.  (I really do NOT feel like moving everything we own, AGAIN, after just one year of living here)
  3. Fight the power. (Seeming like the only option)

I HATE negotiating.  Hate it.  Cannot stand it.  But here we are, backed into a corner.  We don’t want to move again so soon.  We love the neighborhood, and we love the apartment, itself.  However, we simply cannot afford the rent increase.  So, we really don’t have a choice – it’s negotiation or bust.  And since physically busting doesn’t sound so fun, I guess we’ll be negotiating.

Now, I’ve got to run off to try to explain in 10,000 words or less why Agent Owens and I deserve a lower rent.  Then, I have to call the management office, speak to someone about how I want to negotiate my rent, and send my sure-to-be-lengthy plea off to the leasing director via email.  Can you tell how excited I am about jumping into this process?  The excitement is literally oozing out of my pores.  Sike.

Stay turned for the top ten reasons why The Gate owes us a better rate.  (Rhyming.  Loves it.)

Oh, also, before I forget:

TIP!:  You might be wondering what I meant earlier when I mentioned our “net-effective rent.”  Basically, if a management company is leasing you an apartment and offering a free month, there are two payment options.  1.  Take the first month for free, and pay the full rent price for all the other months, or 2.  Divide the cost savings from that free month throughout the entire term of the lease.  Here is an equation for figuring out a net-effective rent:

full rent x (term of lease – free period) / term of lease = net effective

Our initial payments at The Gate were calculated like this: 

$2000 x 13 months / 14 months = $1857

Feel like you’re in 8th grade algebra?  And you thought those silly word problems would never come in handy!  If a train travels at 40 mph for 500 miles…ah memories.

Image:  Rebecca for Happy City Living

Video:  YouTube-kfidgs

Burn Baby, Burn

4 May

Well, folks…I made it.  I woke up at 6:00 and only hit the snooze button once!  So, I was on time for yoga at 7 AM, and I started my day with a helluva workout.  It felt great.  I arrived at work earlier than usual, and I’ve had lots of energy all day.  And best of all, I got to eat Chipotle for lunch got my exercise in early, so I’ll have my evening free!

Crap.  Guilty conscience.  I DID eat Chipotle for lunch.  Hello 1,000 calories back on my girlish figure.  But it was sooooo good.  It’s always sooooo good.

One step forward, two steps back...

The plan is now going to be that I will attempt to do yoga at least 2 mornings per week.  It’s a wishful plan.  But, now that I know I won’t spontaneously combust from rising out of bed before 8 AM,  I’m game to try it.  Anyone want to join me?

Oh, yea, and I promise to get back to salads and wraps for lunch.  Not that you care how girlish my figure is.  But still,  I’m aware of how ridiculous it is to work hard to burn off calories, only to put back on double the amount of calories you burned off in one meal.  Damn, I hate being rational.

Image:  Chipotle

Yoga to the People

3 May

I have to tell you about one of my favorite places in the city.  Surprisingly enough, for a food junkie like me, this favorite spot is not an eatery.  On the contrary, it’s a place to exercise!  It’s an amazing yoga studio called Yoga to the People.  Now, if you’re like I used to be, just stop rolling your eyes right now.  Yea, I used to think yoga was for wimps, too.  I mean how are you going to burn calories just standing there?

Well, let me tell you, naysayer:  it is estimated that in one hour of power vinyasa yoga (the kind of yoga I do at YTTP), someone like me (average height/average weight, twenty-something female) will burn between 500 and 700 calories per hour.  Plus, you’re not running around in circles on a hamster wheel treadmill.

Treadmills stink, and the only thing you should use them for is as a napping surface.

First of all, here’s why yoga is great (in addition to the fact that it burns off all the carbs I love to eat).  Yoga increases balance, flexibility, and strength.  It works your core muscles, and it helps you to be more centered.  It is a time when all you have to worry about is your breath flowing in and out of your lungs.  Yoga is selfish, in that you get to focus on YOU and only you.  But yoga is also selfLESS in that you are making yourself a more peaceful, less reactionary person to be out in the world amongst everyone else.

Now, here’s why Yoga to the People is my favorite yoga.  YTTP is open to everyone.  There is no sign-up list.  There are no fees.  There are no special clothes or equipment needed, and there’s no right way to move your body.

The classes at YTTP tend to be very packed.  In a space the size of a studio apartment, there are often up to 65 people lined up on mats within inches of each other.  The energy you take in from all the people around you is magnetic, and lack of judgment is calming.  No one is watching you if you can’t do a pose correctly.  No one cares if you fall over (even if you crash into them, as I’ve done).  They’re there to better themselves, just as you are.

I should also mention that there are no class levels at YTTP.  Everybody practices together.  Yes, you’ll see some people standing on their heads, but you’ll see a lot more of us just tackling the basics.  Don’t be intimidating if someone near you seems to be more advanced, just focus on your practice.

Another great feature of YTTP is that it’s donation based.  When I was completely broke, I was able to still go and take classes without worrying about breaking my bank.  If I had a dollar to give, that was fine.  If I had no money on a given day, that was fine, too.  If I handed over a $20 bill, cool.  If I wanted didn’t happen to have cash on me and wanted to pay double next time, no problem.

You can rent a mat from them for $2, and if you’re dying to do yoga, but don’t have clothes with you, those are for sale, too.  They give out hair ties, wipes for the mats, and they lend blocks for balancing.

There are tons of different teachers, and while I certainly have my favorites, almost all of them are really great.

For me, the best parts about practicing at YTTP are the beginning and the end of the classes.  At the beginning everyone starts in child’s pose, curled over their knees, face down to the floor.  This lets you relax and find your breath.  Then, at the end, as things wind down, the lights are dimmed and the final pose is savasana.  Everyone lies flat on their backs.  The breath slows, and the peace that comes over your body after a long workout is amazing.

Now here’s what you need to know to be a cool kid in the know.  Show up early.  If a class starts at 6:00, many people will arrive at 5:30.  If you show up at the last minute, it will be tough to get a spot.  And if you show up after classes start, you’ll be locked out.  This is the one thing in life that I arrive early for.

As for other processes, I can only speak for the studios on St. Mark’s Place.  That’s the only place I go.  The studios are in a residential building.  There is a buzzer marked for YTTP, and before and after classes, there is a steady stream of yogis flowing in and out of the building.  Follow the masses and choose a studio on one of the levels (sometimes an instructor will guide you to continue on to an upstairs space).  Always take off your shoes before entering one of the studios.  Place your mat down to get a spot and THEN worry about changing clothes or putting your belongings in a corner.  Do not be offended if someone moves your mat over a bit.  They continually squeeze more and more people into rows to make room for everyone.

The, just relax, engage, and enjoy.

Truth be told, I’m sharing this post for two reasons.  The first reason is that I love YTTP.  I would love to drive some business their way, and I would love to share this great form of exercise and relaxation with other potential yoga fans.

The second reason I’m sharing is because I’m going to try, tomorrow morning, to do the impossible:  I’m going to try to get up at 6 AM and go to a 7 AM yoga session.  For a night-owl-morning-hater like me, getting myself out of bed that early should be pretty close to excruciating.  But I want to try.  And I want you to hold me to it.  If there’s anything I would wake up early for, it would be yoga.  And maybe, if I’m successful, I’ll start a new routine of introducing some inner peace to my mornings.  So, now that I’ve posted my intended plan, I have to do it.  Right?  I will have failed the interwebs if I don’t.  Right.  Wish me luck.

Namaste.

Yoga to the people now has studios at multiple locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, plus they’ve opened up shop in Seattle, San Francisco, and Berkeley.  Find zen coast to coast!  Check out their website at www.yogatothepeople.com to find the location nearest to you and the different types of yoga offered at each studio.

 

Images:  (1) Flickr-normanack, All others Yoga to the People.

Spam Filtering on Craigslist (or How NOT to Get Swindled)

1 May

I got an email today from someone looking to sublet an NYC apartment this summer, and of course, I suggested good ol’ Craigslist.  There are more listings on that site than anywhere else (for the general public, anyway).  Plus, the lack of formality can make the site less stressful to use than real estate companies’ websites or other online apartment-finders.  Still, “the Craigslist method” of apartment hunting is riddled with problems, not the least of which is fake ads.  Craigslist pulls these fake ads down if they get flagged for removal by users, but it’s impossible to catch every offending post.  So, as a user, the best thing you can do is to learn what to watch out for.  In simply knowing the tell-tale signs of a fishy ad, you can save yourself tons of time and energy.  Who knows?  Maybe your search can be as painless as mine was when I moved to Harlem (the apartment I moved into was the first one and only one I saw).

Below, I’ve listed a couple of the signs of a scam.  Some of this may sound confusing, and that’s because the goal of scams IS to confuse you.  You might read by examples and go, “But wait, that doesn’t make any sense!”  You’d be correct, but people fall for these ads all the time, no matter how ridiculous they seem.  There is nothing straight-forward about what scammers do.  So, try to follow me here, as I describe the twisted logic of fake listings:

FAKE: If you buy a Louis Vuitton purse on Canal Street for $5, it ain’t Louis Vuitton. Hate to break it to ya.

Total fakeness #1:  The Misrepresentation

There are real estate companies – real ones and fake ones – that like to stretch the truth when posting on Craigslist.  One oft-used tactic is to mis-categorize listings.  Studios and junior-1s will be listed as 1BRs.  You might go to see a place that is called a 1BR on the listing, only to find out it actually doesn’t have a separate bedroom at all.

Another way for them to skirt reality is to include multiple apartment sizes within a building, on the same Craigslist ad, but only show the pricing of the least expensive size.  For example, an ad for a $1900 1BR in the Financial District might then show generic photos of a luxury building and say “offering studios, one-bedrooms, and two-bedrooms.”  When you call about the $1900 1BR listing you saw, they’ll say, “Oh, $1900 is for the studio.”

Here are two simple ways to avoid dealing with this bullsh*t:

  1. If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is.  If every 1BR that you’ve seen listed for the Financial District is at least $2500, then a $1900 listing for the same size unit in the same area is probably not legit.
  2. If you see a real estate company with oodles of listings that look virtually identical (all in the exact same format and showing the exact same photos), but vary in price and wording, be skeptical.

FAKE: This body type is not real. No one is shaped like this. Not even Princess Kate Duchess of Cambridge Catherine Middleton Windsor. Damn close, but no cigar.

Total fakeness #2:  The Imaginary Apartment (aka the send-me-money scam)

I once watched an episode of the A&E show Intervention, wherein a man’s addiction to prescription drugs led him to make horrible choices (as with all the folks on that show).  This including making the choice to send money to scam artists.  He was addicted to sending money to lunatics in other countries who told him he’d won something.  Until I saw that episode, I had no idea that anyone fell for “send-me-money scams.”

But people do fall for money scams.  That’s why the scams still exist.  And Craigslist is a great place for scammers to prey on the naïve.  It’s a smart ploy, too.  First time apartment hunters, and people hunting for apartments in new cities, are often stressed out by the process and under-informed.

Do yourself a favor here:

  1. If you don’t know much about the city you’re moving into, use a realtor.  Try to find an agent who comes recommended by a friend or colleague.  If you don’t know anyone in the area, talk to multiple realtors to get a feel for how far your money will go in a given neighborhood.  This is what realtors are there for.  It is worth the money to avoid getting ripped off.
  2. If you live in the city and you’re just looking for a new apartment, nothing should be taken care of over the phone.  Go see all apartments in person.  Get a business card from the showing agent and look for their website online to confirm that they’re legit.  Do not send any money to anyone.  A lease signing should be done with the building management company or landlord, and the agent showing you the apartment should be involved in the process.  Checks should be handed over in person.

FAKE: The tooth fairy. No one except your mother would pay money for your baby teeth

There are a few things to look for when scanning Craigslist for your new apartment.  Here are some warning signs that can serve as quick red flags to potential listing problems:

  1. No phone number.  Listing agents want to get their apartments rented, so they definitely want you to call them.  99 times out of 100, they’ll list their cell phone number.  If you don’t see a phone number, this might mean something fishy is going on.
  2. @aol.com email addresses.  If the anonymous Craigslist email address is replaced with a generic personal email address, you may be staring at a scam listing.  Realtors will often include their work email in their listings, which will be easily recognizable, but if the sole contact email is a generic address, check the listing a bit more closely to see if everything else seems legitimate.
  3. The cheapest price around.  If you’re looking for a 1BR apartment in Soho and everything you’ve seen has cost $2800/month, a random listing for $1500 is probably not real.

More to come on Craigslist.  I’ll tell you about how realtors actually use the site and give you some info on wording, photos, and neighborhood names.  But for now, at least you can keep from falling victim to people who can only waste your time.  Apartment hunting on your own can feel like a full-time job, especially if you’re working with a deadline.  Taking heed to the points I listed here can filter out bad listings fast.

Anyone ever fallen victim to a Craigslist scam?  Anyone stealthily avoided scams?  If it was up to me, you’d be able to “cross listings off” of your search results, if you didn’t like them or if they seemed fake.  That way you could narrow down your search on the spot and not spend time scrolling through junk.  Craigslist creators, are you reading this?  Help a girl out!

Images:  (1) Flickr-wilrocka, (2) Flickr-HelgeThomas, (3) Flickr-Brad.Coy

Stop! In the Name of Love

29 Apr

Somebody made me stop blogging tonight, when I got home.  Well…two somebodies.

Johnny begged me to pull myself away from the laptop and please come snuggle…

…and Vader, well, as always, he took a more literal approach to ending my blog writing:

Yup, he plunked right down on my lap as I was typing.  Guess that puts an end to that!

Sometimes life in this city is so fast-paced and busy that it makes your head spin.  So, it’s great to be reminded to take a breather and just relax at home with the people (and furbabies) you love.  Good job, kitties.  Good job.

xoxo

Images:  Rebecca for Happy City Living

If You Don’t Take Care of Your Nice Things…

28 Apr

…then you can’t have nice things. That was the rule in my house, growing up. It’s simple, but it’s important. In fact, I’d say it was the #2 most important lesson my parents instilled in my sister and me, topped only by the all-encompassing, “Make good choices.”

My parents, the founders of "Taking Care of Your Nice Things: The Lifestyle," and my sister, who takes care of all her nice things.

Increasingly, as we age, my sister and I are convinced that taking care of your nice things applies to all aspects of life. Here are a few of our favorite examples that we’ve encountered since leaving the nest:

  1. Your boyfriend doesn’t appreciate you, and, thus, you break up with him.  If he doesn’t take care of his nice things (i.e. you), then he can’t have nice things.
  2. Your coworker comes into work hung over and gets canned.  If she doesn’t take care of her nice things (i.e. her employment), then she can’t have nice things.
  3. You go out and get sloppy drunk and spill beer all over your brand new spring dress, ruining it for good.  If you don’t take care of your nice things (i.e. your pretty frock), then you can’t have nice things.

Wherever you may be in your life, taking care of your belongings is a must. And one good, old-fashioned way of protecting your goods is by getting insurance. We insure our lives, our homes, our money, and our workplaces. The homeowners of the world insure their houses and condos. But renters often neglect to afford themselves this type of security blanket.

Here’s the amazing part, though – renter’s insurance is one of the cheapest adult investments you can make! To insure a 1BR apartment, you will likely pay $15-$20 per month, through companies like State Farm, Allstate, and Liberty Mutual. In return, they will cover you for around $40,000 in most cases! I chose State Farm because they gave me the best price and the most coverage. Plus, their website was easy for me to navigate. Priorities, people.

Anyway, I’ve compiled three stories for you about scenarios where renter’s insurance has been a lifesaver. Take these tales to heart, and then, go sign up for some renter’s insurance of your own. I’ll tell you about two friends, and then I’ll share a saga of my own. Looking back, it seems that renter sagas are a theme in my life – ugh. Well, at least this misfortune had a decent ending.  Actually, all three stories did.

While you may feel you can control what goes on in your apartment, you cannot control your neighbors.

Story #1 – The Building Blaze

A guy I knew from college lived in the Lower East Side of NYC. We studied recording in school, and his post-graduation apartment had sound equipment that was worth some serious money (serious money for a 22-year-old, anyway). Unfortunately, when his building burned down – yes, the WHOLE THING was on fire – nearly all of his belongings were lost, including thousands of dollars worth of recording gear. He would have been shit outta luck, except that he had been forward-thinking enough, upon graduation, to sign up for renter’s insurance.  His insurance company gave him about $40K to cover his losses (musical and otherwise) and put him up in a fancy NYC hotel for a month.

Do you want your kitchen to look like this one? If it did look like this, would you want to pay to fix it?

Story #2 – The Epicurean Explosion

My sister’s friend used to live in an apartment right above her.  From the time this girl moved in, she had ongoing problems with her stove.  It never worked quite right, and there was always a gassy smell.  She had a hunch that something was seriously wrong and reported the issue to the building multiple times.  However, when maintenance came to look at the appliance, they never determined that it needed to be replaced.  How wrong they were.  One day while this girl was at work, the entire stove/oven unit basically exploded.  Her whole apartment was singed and she came home to find fire trucks everywhere.  Again, her smart thinking in initially getting renter’s insurance when she moved in, saved her having to replace everything she owned, out of pocket.  Not only did her insurance company pay for her damages, but they overnighted her a check for part of the money, so that her life didn’t have to come to a halt while the paperwork was all filed.

It's unclear what I am looking down at in this photo...or what I'm wearing, for that matter. Anyway, the thing to focus on is the left window pane, situated next to the couch.

Story #3 – The Great Harlem Flood of ’09

Ok, there was no flood in Harlem.  At least not in 2009.  But there was a weekend with CRAZY hurricane force winds, coupled with tons of rain and thunder and lightning.  And on that weekend, I was out of town.  Agent Owens was off working somewhere in Bumblef*ck, and I took a mini-vaykay to spend the weekend with him.  The good thing is that I missed being in NYC for all of that horrible weather.  The bad thing is that the window in my living room (right next to the couch) slid down, opening my apartment up to the elements.  Sucky.  In that Harlem apartment, I had one window that just would not stay up, and I had one window that wouldn’t budge to slide up or down, even when I used all the brute force I could conjure up.

So, on that particular weekend, the slippy window slipped down.  You know the phrase, “come hell or high water”?  Well, hell AND high water came into my apartment.  When I got home late that Sunday night, my living room looked like someone had broken into it – and that someone was Mother Nature.  My beloved Crate and Barrel couch was completely soaked through; my brand new throw quilt felt like it had been thrown into a swimming pool (a dirty swimming pool, at that); there were branches and leaves all over the floor and coffee table; and my laptop that had been plugged in and sitting on the couch was fried. (My brain:  I’m disconnected from the world!!!!!  AHHH.  Oh, wait, I have an iPhone.  Phew.  But still.  I need multiple small, technological devices available to me at all times.  Damn you, State Farm for not providing me with a new laptop at midnight on a Sunday!)

Oh yea, and all those damaged items?  They were NOT going to be cheap fixes.

Thanks to the cockroach/bee lady incidents, though, I had just signed up for renter’s insurance a few months earlier!  And like a good neighbor, State Farm was there for me.  I won’t tell you it was fun to file a claim.  It wasn’t.  There were lots of phone calls, lots of being put on hold, lots of paperwork…and I had to itemize everything in the apartment that had been damaged and prove the value of those items.  I had to go to the Apple store to get the Genius Bar guys to confirm in writing that my computer could not be fixed.  I had to link claim representatives to my couch online so that they could verify that the value I’d listed was correct.  In the end, State Farm cut me a check for about $3000 (the cost of everything I needed to replace, minus the $500 deductible). I certainly sat there and thought, wow, I’m glad I don’t try to make my living via insurance fraud.  Pain in the ass!  But I also thought, thank goodness I have insurance!

Just so that you can get an idea of the actual-factual numbers involved in renter’s insurance, I’ve outlined a simplified version of my old Harlem insurance policy.  These are the real numbers from that policy:

So, have I convinced you, yet?  For less money than you spend on coffee each month, you can take care of your nice things.  And you know what that means…you get to HAVE nice things.  Thank you for life lessons, Mom and Dad!

Anyone had success in the past with a company other than State Farm?  Any apartment damage sagas you’ve been itching to vent about?  Share ‘em!
Images:  (1) Rebecca for Happy City Living, (2) State Farm, (3) Flickr-JasonEdwardScottBain, (4) Flickr-Boyfixandprofit.com, (5) & (6) Rebecca for Happy City Living

Lions and Tigers and Bees, OH MY!

25 Apr

Ok, so there were no lions or tigers in Harlem.  But I do have a bee story for you.  And it WAS an “OH MY” kind of story.

I sometimes burn food while I cook.  So, do my neighbors.  One of the joys of living in apartment buildings, within 10 feet of other families, is that you can smell everything they burn, and you can breathe in the smoke that often seeps into the hallway, firsthand.  Here at The Gate, where I live now, a little bit of smoke in an apartment triggers an automatic call from building management, to make sure everyone is ok.  But back at Riverton, if someone scorched the toast or overcooked the bacon, it was the responsibility of everyone who lived on the floor to make sure the situation wasn’t serious.  To be fair, I was a frequent culprit of creating smoke, as I burned most everything I tried to bake. I got used to simply wafting the door to the hallway for a while, and opening some windows to air the place out.  It solved the problem fast, and no one paid me any mind.

I host a Christmas party every year. I make a big meal for all my friends, and do tons of cooking in advance. Inevitably, though, I try to make biscuits or some type of baked good during the party (so they come out hot!), and they ALWAYS burn. This year, at The Gate, building management had to call upstairs twice to make sure I hadn’t burned the place down. I’d like to blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol, but realistically, it’s my baking skills that are at fault.

So, anyway, I didn’t think much of the smokey smell that made its way under my front door one February evening, in Harlem.  I figured it would dissipate fast.  But then it didn’t.  And after 5 minutes of the smell getting worse, rather than better, Agent Owens and I made our way out into the hallway.  A few other neighbors did the same, and we quickly deduced that the now quite thick smoke was coming from under the door of an elderly resident.  Not just any elderly resident…the cockroach lady! Upon pounding on the woman’s door, we got no answer.

I immediately called 911 (and made a too-late mental note to sign up for renter’s insurance, which I’d been procrastinating doing, out of sheer laziness).  Another tenant had already called building security, too.  When the security officer arrived and knocked on the woman’s door, a little voice yelled out “I’m fine, thanks!”  This somehow satisfied the security person (WTF?!?!), and we residents were left standing in cloud of smoke.

The fire department then rushed onto the floor in full gear, complete with giant axes.  They beat on that old woman’s door so hard that I thought they might just knock it open.  She repeatedly tried to tell them to go away, and they repeatedly reminded her that the building was filling up with smoke.  After a few quick tries at reasoning with her, they gave her an ultimatum:  let us in, or we break down your door.  She sheepishly complied and opened the door, at which point smoke lunged out at everyone and something flew at a firefighter’s head.  He ducked as his partner exclaimed, “Was that a…BEE?!”

Yes, in the smokey haze a few bees had flown out of the apartment.  In February.  In freezing cold New York City.

In case you're not from Northeast, bees do not belong north of the Mason-Dixon line in February. I can't speak for the rest of the country, but in the Northeast, I know this much is true.

I have no idea what was going on in that apartment.  The old lady was fine.  Fine enough to argue with the firefighter.  Fine enough not to need any medical attention.  So I’d have to imagine she was “smoking” something (food, maybe?) on purpose.  Agent Owens reminded me that some beekeepers use smoke to calm the bees, but I doubt the woman was keeping bee hives in an NYC apartment.  I guess weirder animals have been kept in apartments (a dude in Harlem was found to have been living with a Bengal tiger and an alligator, in 2003).  But, still.

This is Ming. No, that's not the NYPD guy's name. Ming is the tiger in the window. Oh, you thought I was joking about a tiger and an alligator in an apartment? I only joke about animals weighing less than 400 lbs. This is the scene when the police tried to tranquilize the giant cat. He lunged at the window and broke the glass. The alligator was chillin' on the floor next to Ming, waiting to jump in if things got out of control.

Either way, the smoke-and-bees incident forced Riverton management to snap into action.  The cockroach/bee lady was clearly not living in healthy conditions.  And even more clearly, no one was checking in on her.  The firefighters went into that apartment and obviously saw the filth and bugs everywhere.  The next day there was a building maintenance team with a cart full of cleaning supplies, in the hallway of our floor.  They cleaned the place from floor to ceiling and ripped up the old carpet that used to stick out from under the lady’s door.  And, most importantly, it seemed that they fumigated the apartment because the roaches were gone instantly.  I never saw one more cockroach in the time I lived at Riverton.

There are a few lessons to learn from this tale:

  1. When your friends and family get old, make sure they’re taken care of.  Period.  You do not want your loved ones living in filth, with cockroaches for roommates – or smoking out bees.  And we all now know that’s a plausible scenario.  K?
  2. Bugs and pests from other apartments in your building can become a problem in YOUR apartment.  It doesn’t take long for little critters to venture down the hallway and slip under a different door.  They will always bring friends, too.  TIP!:  If you see a problem with pests developing in your building, notify building management.  Keep a record of these notifications, and if your problem is not attended to, call 311 (the NYC-info hotline) to get further help.  Tenants have rights!
  3. Renter’s insurance is a must.  I’ll go into more detail on this later.  In a nutshell, though, if the smoke had made its way into my apartment or if, heaven forbid, there actually had been a fire, I would have had no safety net to protect my home and my belongings.

Needless to say, I made it my business to get renter’s insurance immediately after this event.  See ya later, roaches!  What up, smart adult choices!

Anyone else ever have to call 911 about a problem in their apartment or building?  It’s nerve-racking, but I have to hand it to the FDNY, they beat the traffic and got there fast.  And, man, do they mean business!  You better follow instructions or they will cut you chop down your front door!

Images:  (1) Rebecca for Happy City Living, (2) Stock.xchng-levdavid, (3) The Gothamist

Roach Motel

22 Apr

I am not a bug person.  I understand that most insects serve some type of environmental, circle-of-life purpose, but I don’t want them serving that purpose anywhere near me.  New York City’s most famous bug, of course, is the cockroach.

By the time I lived in Harlem, I’d been in NYC for 5 years, and I’d heard oodles of stories about infestations throughout the city.  “Killer roaches” had been described as being big enough to bench press the bar of soap on your sink.  Most of these stories were grand exaggerations.  However, I’d seen cockroaches face to face, and they DID look pretty big (as bugs go) and prehistoric.

I’d never had a problem with roaches, though (read:  they’d never shown up at one of my apartments).  While I am by no means a clean-freak, I do always make sure not to leave any food out.  I don’t want to give any bugs or rodents a reason to visit me.  And this method of prevention had always worked for me.

So, imagine my surprise one night, when I get out of bed, go into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and see something scurry across the countertop as I flick on the light.  Insert momentary freak-out.  I couldn’t see where the roach went, but I quickly concluded that there must be some food container open in the pantry or something sticky on the counters.  I resolved to clean the kitchen, top to bottom the next morning.

EEEWWWW!

After attacking my countertops with Clorox Clean-up (my go-to), and going through every food item in the fridge and cupboards, I figured I had probably taken care of the issue.  But then, that night, I heard a rustling sound coming from the kitchen.  Yet again, as I turned on the light, a cockroach scurried across the floor.  Then, I noticed another one moving up the wall.  I would have completely panicked and admonished myself for being a filthy person, but plain old common sense had me befuddled.  There was NOTHING for these bugs to eat.  So, why on earth would they be here?!

I went out to the store the next day and invested in 3 different types of roach traps, plus poison (don’t worry, I didn’t have my kitties at this point), and a few bottles of Raid.  I put the traps and the poison out everywhere, and I kept the bottle of Raid handy at tall times.  If a roach showed his face, I was going to spray him to his demise, right there on the spot.

The magical red can. Raid actually makes eco-friendly big-killing products, but roaches need the baddest of bad chemicals.

After weeks of this, there seemed to be more roaches, rather than less, and I just could not figure it out.  They never left the kitchen and front hall, as far as I saw, but they seemed to be bringing more and more friends with them every single night.

Then, I started seeing cockroaches in the hall, by the elevators.  That’s when it finally crossed my mind that maybe I wasn’t the one bringing on the roach infestation. Maybe it was one of my neighbors.  Now, this would present both relief to me and also a big problem.  I wasn’t a dirty girl (PHEW!), but I also couldn’t go in and clean everyone else’s kitchen to try to stop the problem.  I let the management company know about the bugs, but as you may remember from this post, they weren’t big on solving issues for their tenants.

As the roach quantity increased in the hallway, I sprayed a line of Raid across my threshold every day.  Then, one day, I met my next-door neighbor (also my favorite neighbor) in the hall.  I got off the elevator, and she was spraying ammonia all over the walls.  “I’ve had it with these roaches!” she yelled.  Amen, sister.

She then marched over to another neighbor’s door and started spraying it.  As she did, I could see that there were little roaches all around the doorframe.  And worse yet, they were crawling in and out from under the door, too.  This was the source.  My friend doused the door with ammonia and killed off the insects we could see.  But you could see a filthy rug sticking out under the door, and the roaches seemed to come from it in a never-ending stream.

Get the 411 on cockroaches in the city here.

There was no simple fix.  The woman was ancient.  She lived alone, and there seemed to be no one checking in on her.  I’d seen her pushing her walker around in the courtyard and often been scared that she’d go tumbling right before my eyes.  She’d lived at Riverton for decades, but she was now so old.  And she was alone.  She probably couldn’t even see the roaches, let alone clean up enough to make them leave.

I called building management again, to no avail.  My neighbor did the same.  Little did we know what it would take before someone was sent in to clean that lady’s apartment up.  We’d soon find out.

Any of you city-dwellers ever have a problem with cockroaches?  How about mice or rats?  Or worse…bed bugs!  How did you solve your issue?  Is your skin crawling just reading about this?  Mine, too.

 

Images: (1) Therysma, (2) Flickr-KentaHayashi, (3) Walgreens, (4) NYC DOH, (5) YouTube-Showmanlee

The Sky Is Falling!

20 Apr

For the first 6 months that I lived in my Harlem apartment, I was happy as a clam.  I loved everything about the place (except the washer).  My bedroom was bathed in light and cooled with a cross-breeze, thanks to windows on two walls.  The living room and dining room were perfectly separated by the L shape of the main room.  The kitchen had brand new appliances.  And, during my morning shower, I could look out the bathroom window (which was actually IN the shower) and laugh at the people on the commuter train, coming over the train bridge outside the window, because they’d had to wake up WAYYY earlier than me.  Meanwhile, my commutation had been cut in half, since jumping the Sunset Park ship.  Yup, life was good.

Happy Rebecca, in her happy, holiday, Harlem home!

But December was fateful that year, for my home and me.  Well, for my bathroom, anyway.  See, I loved my bathroom.  I love bathrooms, in general (home ones, not public ones, of course).  A bathroom is the one place on earth where no one bothers you.  When you’re taking a shower or a bath, or even just sitting on the john, your time is your own.  No one is asking you for anything, and the world is at peace.  So, one morning in December I was merrily sticking my arm out the shower window to catch snowflakes when I noticed a crack on the ceiling above the showerhead.  Now, when I moved in I’d noticed that there had been a crack there in the past, and it had been spackled and painted.  I figured the issue was taken care of (Wrong wrong wrong!).

Not a great shot, but you can see the thin line where the crack was forming again. The other small lines were also cracks, but seemed less offensive.

Upon seeing that the crack was wack back, I called up my landlord, like a good tenant should, and I asked that someone come take a look at it.

TIP!:  If you notice any problems with your apartment, you should let the management company know ASAP.  This way, you will not be held accountable for the damage.  Anything that needs to be fixed, and was clearly not a tenant-caused problem, should be taken care of my the landlord right away.  One of the few benefits of being a renter is that someone else takes care of the electrical, plumbing, foundation, walls, floors, etc.  If YOU caused a problem (i.e. had a party and your friends tore the apartment to shreds), you must fix the damage.  In either scenario, the faster the fix, the better.

Before I go any further, I ought to give you an idea of the building management I was dealing with.  The ownership at Riverton has since changed, but back then, old Stellar Management was anything but stellar.

When I first called to submit a maintenance request, it took me about four tries to actually get the right person on the phone.  Then, that person told me they’d schedule the maintenance crew to come up the following morning.  Theoretically, the maintenance staff began their day at 8:00 AM, and I was to be their first stop.  However, they didn’t make it up to my apartment that day.  And at 9:00, after several calls to the unresponsive management company, I was officially super late for work.  I had to bail.

So I called Stellar again at lunch.  They apologized and said a guy would be up there “first thing” the next morning.  That next day, he showed up just as I was getting ready to jump ship again, right before 9:00.  The guy who came to look at the situation told me it just needed some spackle and paint.  In my brain, I was thinking, “If the last spackle-and-paint job didn’t do the trick, how will this one be any different?”  But I was running late and just wanted the whole thing to be done with.  So we set up yet another appointment (of course the maintenance man who evaluated the problem was not capable of FIXING the problem on that day), and someone came up to take care of the crack.

Fast forward to January, and the crack showed up again.  At first I thought to myself, “Oh well, they can’t seem to fix it and it’s not bothering me, so I’ll just live with it.”  But then it grew.  And grew.  And grew.  And then pieces of the ceiling started crumbling down into the bathtub.  So, I called my friends down in the management office, and they sent someone up again.  In case you were wondering, he showed up late, of course.  He told me the issue was likely stemming from the old pipes in the bathroom upstairs (“NO!  You don’t say!”).  The problem was that we then had to coordinate getting into the apartment above mine.

Getting bigger...

Thar she grows!!!!!  The ceiling begins to crumble.

You can see where this might get messy.  It was hard enough for these guys to work around my schedule.  Now, we’re supposed to accommodate someone else’s schedule too?  But then a little God-send came along, in the form of my friend, Spike.  Spike was the one guy on that maintenance team who made sure I was taken care of.  Any time he was assigned to do work at my apartment, it was done right.  Unfortunately, he was not always assigned to me and my bathroom troubles.  Boo hiss.

I’ll spare you the ceiling-repair-debacle details that spanned the next year and a half (!!!!!) of my Harlem life.  Rest assured, that year and a half was full of inconveniences, yelling at people over the phone on my lunch breaks, taking days off from work while repairs were being done, etc.  Overall, it was an extremely unpleasant process.  The management company just did not seem to value my time at all, which was beyond frustrating.

In the end, it was decided that we’d need to jack hammer out most of my ceiling, above the shower.  It was quickly discovered that the whole ceiling was soaked, which made the repair process even slower, since we were always waiting for sections of the material to dry before they can be patched.  Try drying out a ceiling above a SHOWER.

On jack-hammer days, my entire bathroom was splattered with the brown/black gook that came out of the old clogged pipes and bits of rotted plaster/insulation.  Apparently, when my apartment had been renovated the year before, the maintenance team had recommended that Stellar open up the ceilings, replace the old trap pipes (about 60 years old), and put in door for future ease of access to pipe issues.  The people in charge said no.

Note the shmutz on the floor. This was the scene in my bathroom one day during the "repairs."

Here's the hole that remained once the pipe was changed out. You can also make out all the water stains that appeared once maintenance tore away layers of the ceiling. Did they leave the ceiling this way, and did little bits of crap continue to fall onto my head while I was showering, for months? Why, yes!

When the guys pulled out the old pipe, there were holes and leaks all over it.  What should have been about a 2-inch diameter pipe was clogged so badly that the space for water to pass through was about the diameter of my pinky finger.  They replaced the trap and actually put in an access door for future issues.  However, there were obviously problems with other sections of the old pipes  (which were left in place) because even after the access door was installed, drips continued to fall from that area.

Shortly thereafter, I moved out.

There is always a chance of problems occurring within your apartment.  And, as a renter, you’re paying the landlord that monthly rent check to take care of those problems.  What I would recommend, having been through this ceiling debacle, is that you document EVERYTHING.  Log all the calls you make to the management company, the visits (or missed-appointments) from maintenance workers, any time you had to miss work, and any money that you lost because of the situation.  Take photos of everything, too.

When all was said and done, I let the management company know that I was not happy at all with the way things were handled, and they gave me 1/2 month of free rent.  This made me feel a little bit better and made for one nice month after all the hassle.

Be a smart renter, and stand up for yourself.

Anyone else have an ongoing apartment problem?  Did it get taken care of?  Were you compensated?

Images:  All Rebecca for Happy City Living

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

19 Apr

In my earlier tour of my Harlem abode, you may have noticed that the apartment featured a highly coveted appliance.  If you don’t live in NYC, you probably think washers and dryers are normal components of any household.  In this city, though, finding an apartment with a washer/dryer is like hitting the jackpot.

So, the realtor who showed me the apartment at Riverton made sure he emphasized how great it was that the unit came with an LG washer/dryer all-in-one combo unit.  The idea is that you load your clothes in and then let the thing run.  You can set it to go straight through a wash cycle and a dry cycle, without stopping.  Theoretically, not having to change the clothes over from one machine to the next should save time.  Unfortunately, this is not so, my friends.

"I look nice, don't I? I will woo you with my silver brand-new appliance charm."

Hear me when I say this:  the wash/dry cycle took FIVE HOURS.  FIVE HOURS!!!!!  What on earth could that machine be doing for five hours?  I know that in five hours I could complete most of a day’s work, fly to London, watch five episodes of a House TV marathon, Facebook stalk my entire friend list, run two whole miles, or read at least 10 pages of a book (yea, running and reading are NOT my strong suits…but I could still do either of those activities in the time that washer/dryer took to do one lousy cycle).  But seriously, what the hell was that friggin’ appliance DOING for five hours?????  Washing and drying clothes was it’s sole job in life!

Now you might be saying to yourself, “This girl just wants everything.  She’s not satisfied with having such a great contraption in her apartment.  She’s already forgotten her old life at the laundromat.  Selfish, spoiled brat.”  You’d be wrong to think that.

When I saw that appliance on my Harlem apartment tour, I practically did a happy dance right there on the spot.  My laundromat in Sunset Park was up at the top of a hill, and carrying laundry up said hill was nightmarish in the winter.  To complicate matters, in my former laundromat life I always had to run home after work to squeeze in a wash cycle and a dry cycle before they closed up shop at 9:00, holding my clothing hostage when I mismanaged my time.  And forget trying to do laundry on the weekends.  Old ladies and moms with 10 kids will FIGHT you for machines.

Dryer security. You touch his mommy's dryer and you're going to have a problem. I'm telling you, stay out of the laundromat on weekends.

So, I was thrilled at my little LG gift, and I didn’t even care that it was taking up half my closet.  But I soon realized that problems would abound with this machine.  First of all, the capacity of the machine was very small.  I could fit maybe one towel and a few articles of clothing in a load.  This meant I had to do laundry constantly.  To keep up with two people’s laundry, I’d need to do a wash/dry cycle every day.  And when I fell behind, as so often happened, it was nearly impossible to catch back up.

Then came the issue of dryness.  The dryer did not dry anything.  If I had any item heavier than a blouse or t-shirt in the wash, everything would come out wet and wrinkled.  I’d then have to reset the machine to run a dry-only cycle for another hour and a half.  If you’re keeping score here, we’re up to 6.5 hours to do a tiny load of laundry.  I cursed that damn machine every single day.

At first, when I saw that you took up half my closet, I didn't mind. I thought you were about to provide a little slice of domestic-bliss-pie. But no. You wasted hours of my life, left me high and dry soaking wet, and you wrinkled up my clothes. Shame. On. You!

Here is what I would tell you about washers and dryers, dear city dweller.  You may want to own one, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the washer or dryer your apartment offers is necessarily one that you’d choose if you were shopping for appliances.  You may find yourself with a machine that is old and inefficient (or brand new and plain old useless).  I can tell you that I will forever be wary of washer/dryer combo units.  Based on my experience, you need to have them separate for each one of them to do their respective job the right way.  So, if you find an apartment listing online and it’s boasting a washer/dryer, find out the make and model of the unit (either from the listing agent or when you go on an apartment viewing).  Do a little bit of googling and see what other people have to say about it.

I can’t say that I’d ever again choose to walk up a hill with my laundry basket, as I had to do in Sunset Park.  But I will tell you this:  I’ll take my current full-sized, shared-by-the-whole-building, separate washers and dryers at The Gate, over an in-apartment combo unit any day of the week.

Speaking of which, my hamper is overflowing, and I think tomorrow’s going to have to be a laundry day.

Any unique laundry experiences during your city-dwelling?  Is this maybe one of those instances that makes you long for the comforts of suburbia?  Yea, me too.  Hey, we city folk benefit from lots of stuff the suburbs can’t offer – like falafel in the middle of the night.  We can’t win ‘em all.

Images:  (1) and (3) Rebecca for Happy City Living, (2) Flickr – Beth Rankin

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