image of woman at gas leak stove

Gas leaks can be extremely dangerous. (Source: David De Lossy/Getty Images)

I came home from the Afropunk Fest one summer night tired and ready to get off my feet. Opening the door to my apartment hallway, I was hit with the strong stench of gas. I hesitated. Then I had a Sweet Brown moment: “Gas leak? Ain’t nobody got time for that. I need to shower and go to bed.”

Then reality set in, and I remembered that gas leaks can be deadly. Suddenly, my heart was pounding out of my chest; I felt like crying. “Just call your dad,” I thought — my brain’s default setting when something breaks. Too bad my family lives in California. Thinking the place could explode any second, I went down the dark hallway and banged on my nearest neighbor’s door, then immediately stubbed my toe. I was afraid that if I flipped the lights on, the place would instantly blow to bits, like in “Inspector Gadget.”

My neighbor didn’t answer, and neither did my super. So I decided to get the hell out, and called 911 from across the street. I sound like Minnie Mouse when I panic, so I was trying to put some bass in my high-pitched voice. None of my neighbors answered their phones (probably because it was 2 a.m.), but the fire department arrived in what seemed like seconds.

I had lived in my tiny, well-appointed Bed Stuy garden studio for about three years without incident. It was a Craigslist steal for $1,050 per month. I’d been so excited to get an affordable apartment of my own that I didn’t bat an eye when my landlord informed me, a month after moving in, that she would be relocating to South Korea. In her absence, another tenant would be taking care of the day-to-day maintenance.

Shortly after she left, the building started to fall apart. There was no heat for weeks in the winter. Water cascaded into my closet from upstairs, and an exterior stoop started crumbling. Still, the rent was cheap. I tried to hang in there — until I had to call the fire department.

They determined that the gas leak was coming from my stove. Once the gas was shut off, and the area was made safe, they said ConEd would inspect the place. Everything seemed like it would be okay. The ConEd man arrived and asked if I had been in the basement, as he wanted to check the boiler. I told him I hadn’t been in the basement, ever — it was pitch black and spooky. So he went down while I anxiously waited at the top of the stairs, ready to lock the space shut and run at the first sign of distress. Luckily, there were no body snatchers. Unfortunately, there was a leak of sinister proportions.

The service man came upstairs and explained that carbon monoxide was leaking from the water heater, and had been leaking for weeks, maybe months. He said it was a wonder I wasn’t sick — or dead.

“You didn’t notice anything?” he asked.

“No. Isn’t carbon monoxide odorless? How would I notice?”

It was summer, and my windows had been open. I’m sure keeping the basement shut helped contain some of the leak. Since the building was a death trap, ConEd disconnected the water heater until the leak could be fixed.

That meant no hot water, of course, but at the time, it seemed like a minor inconvenience. I kicked off my shoes and started to get comfortable.

“Oh wow, you’re not seriously planning to sleep here, are you?” said the ConEd man. “It’s not safe.”

“My feet hurt,” I murmured with a Kanye shrug. It was 3 a.m., and I was exhausted. Gas had been leaking for this long without me dying, so I figured I’d just wing it. Plus, my feet had already started swelling like a punctured can of Pillsbury biscuits. My shoes were not going back on.

Before I went to bed, I emailed my landlord abroad and cc’d the rest of the building. Surely, she’d want to get this issue fixed as soon as possible. The family upstairs had just brought home their newborn.

It took two days for my landlord to respond. She said she was shocked and would have someone come fix it. Her lack of urgency should have hinted at the drama to come, but she was in a different time zone, and I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

A few weeks went by before someone came to fix the leak. I had ConEd come back to inspect, so we could get our hot water turned on, but they discovered that the issue hadn’t been fixed at all. The person who had done the “repair” turned out not even to be a licensed professional, just some random handyman who illegally reconnected the heater.

Things went on like this for weeks. The other tenants chimed in over email, all of us becoming more irate as our landlady gave only radio silence. Finally, she emailed us back — not to give an update on when the boiler would be fixed, but to inform us that she was selling the building. We were soon visited by a broker who encouraged us to keep our apartments tidy for the upcoming open houses.

This, finally, caused a mutiny. We tenants banded together and told the landlady that we wouldn’t be paying rent until the issue was solved. She actually had the gall to tell us we were being greedy.

Since my landlord had made it clear that she had no interest in fixing the problem, I filed several complaints with 311. NYC has so many pro-tenant laws, and I thought there must be something the city could do. Sadly, there was not an effective way to enforce the rules. The city could cite the property, but with the landlord living outside of the United States, there was little it could do to make her comply.

My neighbor said I should stay in the apartment and force the landlord to buy me out. But after a month and a half of dealing with this situation, I decided it was best just to move. The building was being sold anyway, and I was fed up with stress and having no hot water.

So instead of fighting, I opted to forfeit my security deposit and escape to a friend’s studio sublet a few blocks over. That place had its own set of plumbing issues, but a year later, I won the NYC affordable housing lottery, and got a brand-new 1-bedroom at a low price. I’d like to think the universe was cutting me a break for my string of bad apartment luck.

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