Quality of Life Coming Up for Air

By Linda Alexander


Among the most controversial and litigious issues for owners and managers of multi-family residences in New York City is internal air quality. In a city as densely populated as ours, pollution is a reality on myriad levels. But advances continue to be made to the betterment of the overall environment. New York buildings currently burn more than a billion gallons of oil each year, so the advantages of burning low-sulfur No. 2 oil or natural gas—rather than No. 4, which has become a norm in the past decade—is already having a positive impact in terms of reduced respiratory issues in the general population, such as asthma. By 2030, when the transition to low-sulfur heating oils will be required in all New York buildings, residential and commercial, it is anticipated that the concentration of particles emitted by heating systems will be immediately reduced by 63%. A good start.

Owners and managers of prewar to postwar buildings 1960s through 1990s are often exposed to potential litigation because of mold. The seasonal changes are a contributing factor, especially in older buildings with multiple layers of paint throughout, outdated PPAC systems, aging window- or thru-wall air-conditioners, poorly maintained HVAC systems and/or aging interior materials that serve as hosts to mold spores and worse.

Although there are sources providing information on mold remediation and prevention, such as the EPA, it is still incumbent on management and staff to catch occurrences of mold long before it spreads building-wide. If there is a leak causing excessive moisture, which often starts at basement level near the laundry, bike and storage rooms, the source must be identified, dried and quickly plugged. Mold growing for an extended period is identifiable by a musty odor. At that point, licensed professionals may be necessary for complete remediation, which is a costly process.

In the event that mold has spread to the ventilation systems and/or individual units prior to discovery, management should act quickly by documenting complaints through email and letters from residents and creating a record outlining dates and times of management’s response, course of action taken by staff, completion of the remediation and follow-up taken to ensure the mold is no longer present. If a licensed environmental service has been retained, there should also be a certification on record identifying endpoint testing.

Sometimes it just stinks!

Fortunately, not all air-quality issues in New York are as dire as mold and we know we’re already doing better with heating oil standards. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of antiquated ventilation, exuberant cooks and smokers—both cigarette and the soon to be legalized marijuana variety. Although these types of complaints tend to be subjective, for management they represent ongoing issues that need to be addressed. One neighbor’s deliciously fragrant lamb curry may curry ire from the shareholder next door. Although the hope is that culinary scents may be addressed amicably—neighbor to neighbor—too often management must step in to solve the problem, which more often than not, is the product of poor ventilation.

The nuisance of unwanted smells is a fait accompli in nearly all residential buildings constructed before 1990. The airways and ventilation systems that run through the building, garbage chutes and even the personal habits of individual residents may contribute to odor issues. Unfortunately, some odors are more than simply unpleasant, they may also contribute to health issues, especially for those with respiratory problems.

Although there are excellent products on the market that will help ameliorate odors, such as air purifiers and fresheners, it’s up to management and staff to identify the source of the problem reported—whether it’s building-wide or from an individual residence. The first place to start may be the duct work in case there is debris build-up or blockage. If that’s the case, many smells may be remedied by hiring a licensed environmental specialist. In postwar buildings, most vents are in the kitchen and bathroom, so an all-building duct clean-up should have a positive impact.

Regarding smells resulting from cigarette smoke, of which deleterious effects on neighboring residences is well-documented, there is little recourse in rental residences. Many co-ops in the city have added smoking restrictions in proprietary leases, some of which have been challenged as discriminatory. With the anticipation of legalized marijuana, which gives off a particularly pungent aroma, there is nothing on the books to prevent a resident from encroaching on the olfactory sensibilities of the neighbors. In those situations, all management can do is request an offender smoke outside. There are no mechanisms for eviction either, except to not renew a lease. Ironically, once a smoker has vacated an apartment, the cost of remediating the lingering odor through deep cleaning walls and flooring, paining and ventilation, can be exorbitant—and may not completely work.

Outside of Central Park, few will describe New York City as a “breath of fresh air”—and mean it literally. We are a city of over 8.5 million people and an abundance of older multi-family properties that generate lots of mixed odors. Fortunately, property managers are armed with a significant tool chest to address many of the issues.