Water flooded out of the toilet in the bathroom of Shimon Shuchat ’19 and Mei Zheng ’18 on Sept. 24, collapsing a section of the ceiling in the apartment below them. The students had disabled all of the apartment’s carbon monoxide alarms and smoke detectors, and the gas oven was left on to heat the apartment while they slept.
The tenants’ months-long back-and-forth with landlords David and Barbara Lower would eventually lead to multiple housing inspections, a threat of a lawsuit from the city and withheld rent. The stress of the situation would cause Shuchat to abandon living in the house entirely, leaving many of his possessions and the food in the fridge behind.
Like many off-campus living arrangements, 117 Thurston is a free-standing house divided into separate apartments. A creaky wood staircase winds up the exterior to Zheng and Shuchat’s fourth floor apartment. The grade behind the building is so steep that a bridge from the hill provides a second entrance directly to their door. County records estimate the property at 103 years old.
Expired Certificate: A Missed Warning Sign
Shuchat said that it was only after signing the lease that he and Zheng discovered that the house on Thurston had no certificate of compliance, which is a legally required document for all dwellings according to the City Code.
Certificates of compliance are required to ensure that dwellings are regularly checked for adherence to all applicable housing laws. Single and two-family units must be inspected every five years, and buildings with multiple units or more than five unrelated individual occupants require inspections every three years, according to the city code. 117 Thurston contains four units, and an email from the Ithaca Building Department indicated that its certificate expired Nov. 18, 2015.
“What she did was she posted for a different apartment that she had a compliance certificate for. When I contacted her about that [home] she directed me to the other apartment,” Shuchat said, referring to the maneuver as a “bait and switch.” Emails obtained by The Sun corroborate this account, showing that Lower re-directed him to the Thurston property citing a lack of availability in the apartment Shuchat originally requested.
The Lowers own multiple properties in the Ithaca area, including at least two additional Collegetown properties currently rented by Cornell students, houses on 626-28 and 115 Stewart Ave.
After an inquiry about the house’s certificate of compliance, Barbara claimed that a certificate was “good to have” but “not required.” The Director of Code Enforcement for the City of Ithaca Mike Niechwiadowicz directly contradicted her: he told The Sun in an email that certificates are required for all dwellings.
Problems from the Beginning: Overflowing Toilets, No Hot Water
Though Zheng and Shuchat did not know about the certificate’s expiration before moving in, they said it didn’t take long for issues to begin cropping up.
“The first problem we started to have was that the toilet was overflowing on a regular basis. At least once every five days,” Shuchat said, noting that the issue began in early August. The tenants also reported a period of about three days beginning Aug. 20 with no hot water.
In emails to the tenants, Barbara responded to their concerns about the toilet by asking whether they had plunged it or cleaned up the resulting overflows before offering to send assistance. Barbara also repeatedly denied via emails that there were any issues with the hot water.
On Sept. 23, the toilet overflowed completely, inundating the bathroom and causing several ceiling tiles in the apartment below to fall down, disturbing residents living downstairs and prompting the two students to take action.
Zheng and Shuchat outlined their complaints about the plumbing, hot water and other issues in a three-page letter to Barbara and housing inspector Julie Daum on Sept. 27. The letter requested a housing inspection, which Daum performed the next day.
The inspection report confirmed that toilets had overflowed in three apartments, resulting in damage to ceilings. One section said “the carpet outside the bathroom remains wet presumably with sewage. Please clean, sanitize and dry floors/ceilings in all apartments and correct waste water drainage for the entire building immediately.”
In an interview a month after the first inspection, the Lowers maintained 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 much stuff going down 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 Ithaca Cold
As winter neared, heating in the apartment became of increasing concern to Shuchat and Zheng. A follow-up inspection on Oct. 29 confirmed that the apartment’s heat was “insufficient,” that multiple boilers were not working, and that the entire apartment was below the legally required minimum temperature, according to the inspection report.
In the preceding weeks, Shuchat and Zheng had resorted to heating their apartment with the gas oven in the kitchen between their rooms, disabling the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms so they wouldn’t go off while they slept.
“[Zheng] is literally sleeping in a room with the window closed with a gas oven on right near the room, very often on high heat at night without supervision … if heaven forbid I ever came home one night and closed the living room window by accident without thinking, you could predict very easily what’s gonna happen,” Shuchat said in a Oct. 30 interview with The Sun.
As with the plumbing issues, Barbara denied any systemic problems with the heating in a statement that contradicted both the building department’s findings and, at times, themselves.
“We went over there yesterday and the heaters were all working, it was just the one that was not working … It was fixed today but they were all working anyways,” Barbara said in an interview.
The inspector however did not consider the heat concern as, in her own words, “resolved”: the Oct. 29 inspection report noted that only one of the three boilers appeared to be functioning, and noted in an email to Zheng the day after the interview that the heating had not been resolved.
After Zheng sent pictures of thermometers measuring below the legal temperature minimum, Daum sent an email on Nov. 7 to the owners stating that the apartment was in violation of New York State and local code requirements, and said that the heat issues were “required to be repaired immediately.”
With the central heating for the apartment functioning poorly, the students relied on space heaters. Unfortunately, the apartment lacks the electrical output to support more than two heaters, and their added load on the electricity contributed to a power outage on Oct. 29, according to Barbara.
Shuchat and Zheng initially looked to the building department as a means of protection, but Shuchat came to see them in the same adversarial terms as their landlords.
“Right now we’re at the point that we have no faith in the building department,” Shuchat said in an interview in late October. “We both sent them very choice worded emails telling them how what they’re doing is not adequate.”
It is unclear whether the building department can use more forceful measure than a written warning to compel the owners to resolve buildings issues. The Building Department did not respond to multiple requests for comments.
Fire Marshal Gillian Haines-Sharp warned Shuchat in an email that using the oven could cause carbon monoxide poisoning, and instructed him not to disable the CO alarms. Later, Daum told Shuchat that continued use of the oven “may be cause for criminal proceedings filed against the tenant for choosing to endanger fellow residents,” according to a Nov. 8 email obtained by The Sun.
Shuchat and Zheng faced severely limited options for recourse as the days grew colder and the heating remained unfixed. The earliest court date available in small claims court was Feb. 7, and a reinspection for a certificate of compliance was not scheduled until Dec. 5.
Zheng and Shuchat’s solution amounted to a rent hostage negotiation. “We have paid the rent. It is held at an account at Tompkins Trust. First the heat and bathroom drainage needs to be fixed,” Zheng told Barbara in an email.
After the building department threatened legal action for using the oven as heat source, Zheng stopped seeing Shuchat in the apartment. On Nov. 19 — 53 days after the initial complaint — Daum indicated that the heater had been fixed, but Shuchat did not return, according to Zheng.
Shuchat told The Sun that the threat of lawsuit from the building department and the stress of dealing with the situation had caused him to leave. He began sleeping in a library on campus, and was seeking off-campus housing for the next year.
“Filing complaints with IBD [Ithaca Building Department] was overall a gigantic mistake and waste of time. Living without proper sewage and heating is preferable to dealing with those clowns,” Shuchat said in an email. “At this point I consider IBD to be worse than the landlords.”