Our House Is On The Mount Morris Park House Tour This Sunday

Our StaircaseI know this is a bit late to be posting this, but if you’ve been reading this blog and want to see our end result, our house will be on the Mount Morris Park Annual House Tour this Sunday, June 9, from 11am to 4pm.

That’s our place in the picture to the left. It’s in rather stark contrast to what you expect in a Harlem brownstone (see pictures below) – but we had no original detail to work with.

Apparently something like 600 people will be traipsing through our house. But it’s all for a good cause. MMPCIA does some really great work. We bought those little surgical shoe covers for people to put on so they don’t track too much dirt through the house.

MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) produced a rather good video about the house tour. It’s narrated by Syderia Asberry-Chresfield who lives on our block and has gotten to be a good friend.

Harlem brownstone stoop

Our entire house will be open – including the rental unit. (Our tenant was gracious enough to say yes to the house tour). That presented a bit of a staffing challenge for MMPCIA since they provide volunteers to monitor the people going through the house – but it all worked out.

We were hoping to get the garden to a point of completion. We’ve made progress, but it’s not quite there yet. We’re using old joists as “decking” that’ll be laid directly on the ground with pea gravel between them and under them. We’ve applied rot inhibitor to them but over time they’ll disintegrate. At some point we’ll do something better, but the joists will do the job for now and they fit our budget since they’re pretty much free.

Other than the garden, things are pretty much complete. We’re not fully decorated yet – we just have “placeholder” furniture in the living room, our master bedroom bed is just a futon on the floor, and we’re going to need furniture for the roof deck and garden – but we’re getting there. Harlem brownstone stairs on house tourWe’re a bit “house poor” at the moment – but grateful we got through the project and can afford to live here now that it’s done – even if we can’t afford all the new furniture we want 😉

More details about the house tour are available on the MMPCIA website. You can can also purchase advance tickets at a discounted price on their site.

So please join us on Sunday. And when you come through the house, feel free to say ‘hi’..

Do You Know Anyone Who Finished Renos In 2012?

Yesterday was the day that the Department of Finance released the tentative property tax valuations for the coming year. Our valuation went from $333K to $1.91M. That means our property taxes are going from about $3,500/year to something around $21,000/year! [Why does the City seem to want to punish people for improving their communities? I mean dealing with DOB is a nightmare, and now this…]

The way it’s supposed to work is that the amount of improvements to the property is added to market valuation of the property. Normally DOF is limited in how much they can jump your property taxes, but when you do substantial improvements that is the one time they’re allowed to bump the taxes up substantially – but only by the amount of improvements to the property.

If I understand things correctly they threw out the PW3 Cost Affidavit that we submitted to the Department of Buildings and instead used the number $1.46M which their appraiser appears to pulled out of thin air since it’s nothing close to the actual cost. Mind you, “cost” is one of those things that’s a bit flexible and open to interpretation since what you report to DOB is “hard costs” which don’t include everything you spend money on. But it’s not like we’re arguing over small amounts that might be due to the interpretation of “hard costs”. There is just no reality in which we could have spent $1.46M – we simply didn’t have access to that kind of money.

The reason why I’m asking in the title of this post whether people know of other people who completed their jobs in 2012 (and possibly even late 2011) is because I suspect there’s a problem assessor covering Central Harlem. 104 West 120th had an assessment last year of $262K. Their PW3 cost affidavit was for $315K and the assessor gave them a market valuation of $1.5M – so she’s in the same boat we are – it’s just the change isn’t quite as drastic as ours.

If a bunch of us can all band together and go to DOF together, then I think our individual cases will be strengthened and it will seem like the problem is with the assessor. If you know of anyone who might be in the same situation, please have them contact me – jay@beatingupwind.com. I’ll be happy to look up their particulars if they don’t know how to find them. And if you just know the address for buildings that had completed projects last year, please put them in the comments below and I’ll look them up and contact the owners if appropriate.

Update (Jan 21st):

In researching the situation – looking for other places that completed their work in 2012 – I discovered that it’s also affecting some of the folks who haven’t gotten their jobs signed off yet..

There’s a place on 136 that filed a preliminary cost estimate of $50,000, but they’ve had about $650K added to their market value by DOF before the renovations are actually completed. Their taxes will just about triple because of that – not as bad as our case, but they’re probably going to have more added next year when they complete their renovations.

But that’s nothing compared to what’s happening to 241 Lenox (which has also not completed their renovations yet)… They filed cost estimates totaling about $850K. The assessor has raised the market value on that place by $650K which doesn’t seem like a horrible thing on the face of it, but the problem is the tax class was not changed. So their tax bill is going from about $13K/year to a whopping $56K/year. I think they’re doing 2 family plus commercial. I don’t know if that qualifies for tax class 1. If it does, then keeping them at tax class 2 is just spiteful. It’s adding $40K to the cost of their renovations.

Hot Air Doesn’t Always Rise

When we were designing the house I wanted a recirculating duct from the living room on the parlor floor to the bulkhead 4 flights up. I figured in the winter we could pull the hot air from the top of the stairs down to the parlor, and in the summer we could push cool air up where it was hot.

Problem was, the architect wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea, and his mechanical engineer told me air in buildings didn’t work that way – that the hot air wouldn’t rise. That contradicted everything I had been taught in grade school. He said hot air only rises when there’s moving air. The air in a well-sealed house with the windows shut doesn’t move.

I didn’t believe him and when we got to the end of the project the recirculating duct was one of a short list of things I felt like I would have done differently if I could do it all over again.

Well, who’d have guessed – but the mechanical engineer was right. It’s winter and the top floor is at least 5 degrees cooler than the lower floors. It’s not because of poor insulation – we’ve got an R62 roof and R22 walls and great windows. At first I thought it might be just be that the room where I was when it struck me had had the door closed. But then I moved into the stairwell and it was the same there.

In the summer the area up in the bulkhead would get incredibly hot, but apparently that was because of solar heat gain from the large bulkhead windows (and glass door). But in the winter there’s less solar heat gain even – though the bulkhead is designed to capture winter light and discourage solar heat gain in the summer.

Now I’m perfectly happy the recirculating duct wasn’t put it. The air is cold up in the bulkhead – there’s no point of pulling cold air down into the living space in the winter. And likewise with the summer – we don’t need the bulkhead air conditioned.

The moral of the story is engineers know what they’re talking about. Who’ve guessed? lol

Electric Bills For Townhouse vs. Apartment

This is a blog post I’ll update as time goes on… But I’ve been wondering how much our utility costs would go up once we moved into a house. Here are the baseline numbers for electrical usage in our old coop. It was 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, and about 1,350 sq. ft. in a 1939 pre-war (poorly-insulated) building with leaky window A/C units and a Sub Zero fridge:

Summer Average (’07-’09): 29.0 kWh/day
Winter Average (’07-’09): 18.3 kWh/day

Summer I defined as the June 20ish reading through the August 20ish reading. Winter I defined as the September 20ish reading through the May 20ish reading. Actually, winter is a bad term – “non-summer” would be better. So what you see above is the  average of three summers (6 total months), and 2 winters (16 total months)

I should also mention that we work from home – so everything you see includes air conditioning during the day – but typically just for the rooms we were occupying, though Dan has a bad habit in the house of opening doors into unairconditioned spaces and cooling more of the house than is necessary. We also have at least one computer on 24 hours a day – since it acts as a server.

From 5/21 to 6/12 we used an average of 36.3 kWh/day (98% over winter average)
From 6/12 to 7/31 we used an average of 37.2 kWh/day (28% over summer average)
From 7/31 to 8/20 we used an average of 54.1 kWh/day (87% over summer average)
From 8/20 to 9/20 we used an average of 41.0 kWh/day
From 9/20 to 10/23 we used an average of 31.4 kWh/day (72% over winter average)

Now, mind you, the house is a lot bigger has more things going on. Instead of 1,350 sq. ft., it’s about 3,200 sq. ft. There’s 180 watts of light bulbs that are on from dusk to dawn (roughly 2 kWh/day). There’s a dehumidifier running the cellar 24/7 – it’s Energy Star certified, but it still uses a fair amount of power. The server we have running is more power hungry. There’s also a booster pump for water pressure, etc. All in all there’s just more electrical demand than there was in the apartment.

The average from 6/12 to 8/20 was 42.1 kWh/day. Since the period started a little earlier than it should have and there were some days we wished we had A/C before July 3 (when it actually got up and running), let’s call the summer average 45 kWh/day – that would be “just” 55% more than at the coop. I’m pretty happy with that, all things considered.

The average up to 6/12 and after 9/20 is 33.4 kWh/day. So once again we see power going up roughly 11 kWh/day for A/C during the summer. That’s great since we’re cooling more space than we did at the apartment with about the same amount of energy. In fact for about 6 weeks during that time Dan had the A/C on 24/7 up in the studio because he was making stuff out of fiberglass and needed to control the temperature. But our building is more efficient and the A/Cs are more efficient.

But the “winter” (non-summer) power is considerably higher. So far, the townhouse seems to consistently use 15 kWh/day more than our old apartment – that’s 80% more power. Electricity seems to be costing about 25 cents per kWh, so that’s less then $4/day, or about $115/month additional. But when you look at the list of stuff (above) that we didn’t have in the old apartment, it sorta makes sense that it costs more to run a townhouse that’s over twice the size of the apartment.

We also have data for our tenant. That’s a roughly 1,050 sq. ft. duplex apartment (basement & half of the cellar):

From 7/31 to 8/20 he used an average of 24.5 kWh/day (15% under summer average)
From 8/20 to 9/20 he used an average of 35.2 kWh/day
From 9/20 to 10/23 he used an average of 20.9 kWh/day (14% over winter average)

Our tenant also works from home. Theoretically his energy usage should be less than our old apartment – the square footage is less, the insulation is better and the A/C is more efficient. Plus, a third of the space is the cellar which almost never needs cooling. But he does have a dehumidifier running 24/7… His usage was 15% below our usage from late July to late August, but then the following month his electricity usage went up considerably for some reason. And then he was 14% over our winter usage in the past month.

I Was “Outed” Last Week…

Gay men (especially those who are fairly masculine and can pass for straight) are somewhat used to dealing with being “outed”. I deal with it by being open and honest with people – in that case I can never really be outed, ’cause everyone already knows I’m gay. And that’s one of the reasons why I love NYC – sexual orientation is pretty much never an issue here. But there are other types of closets, and I was “outed” from one of them at last week’s MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) meeting…

After “beating upwind” (sailing into the wind) with home renovations, the next phase of “beating upwind” for us became improving the neighborhood. It’s not like we came to Harlem with the intention of changing Harlem, but when you see heroin dealing and heroin addicts on a daily basis, when people repeatedly call you faggot, when they’re beligerant and threaten you physically, when people repeatedly rob your house, steal your iPad, when they tear the DOB permits off your construction fence, etc. – all in the course of a few short months – you don’t just rollover and be passive – at least Dan and I don’t.

So we started working with our block association and with MMPCIA. And as a result, the two of us are now in charge of MMPCIA’s Safety & Security Committee. That puts us in contact with people all over the Mount Morris Park Historic District and what we’re seeing is similar problems in other parts of the neighborhood. In addition to drug dealing, there are reports of crack houses, illegal gambling, even whore houses. Some residents say they’ve even received death threats. We’ve started working pretty actively with the 28 Precinct and the District Attorney’s office to clean up stuff like that from the neighborhood.

By the way – if you’re thinking of buying in Harlem – don’t let all of this scare you off. Most of the blocks in Mount Morris dealt with their problems long ago. Thing is, our block used to be the roughest block in the neighborhood – it was a literal drug emporium (e.g. our house was a full-on crack house). With three methadone clinics one block up on 124th Street, there continues to be a constant demand for drugs, so getting rid of the last bit of drug dealing on our block has taken more time than it has elsewhere.

Plus, when you do encounter a drug dealer chances are they’ll leave you alone – they don’t want you calling the police – it’s not good for their business. There are people who’ve lived here for years who never encountered what we’ve encountered despite walking past the same things we walk past. In fact they often don’t even understand what’s going on – they just see a bunch of guys hanging out. Other people know what’s going on but for one reason or another (the most common being the safety of their kids), they put up with it.

I’ve always heard neighborhoods change when gay men move in. I thought it was just because we made things pretty. Now I realize another big component is that the straight folks with kids let gay men do their crime prevention for them. I find it sort of amusing since gay men are often portrayed in the media as being weak. The media clearly doesn’t see us through the lens of Stonewall – when drag queens stood up to the NYPD and won.

Anyway… The outing… At last week’s MMPCIA meeting the sergeant who I’ve been working with very closely got up to talk. He’s been great. MMPCIA gave him a 3 page list of problem areas a month ago and since then he’s down the list hitting each area – often more than once. All in all we love the work he’s been doing in the area – he made something like 25 to 28 arrests just at locations mentioned on the list – and apparently his arrest outside the bar Paris Blues yielded a significant quantity of narcotics (and to be clear the owners of the bar were not involved in the dealing). He’s sort of a breath of fresh air since other people at the 28 seem to think we’re whiners since there are parts of the precinct that have far more crime. (All in all crime in the 28 is double to triple what you’d see in Washington Heights, but crime in the historic district is half what it is in the rest of the precinct). But the arrests he’s been able to make (especially the one at Paris Blues) show that there is real crime going on – even in our part of the precinct.

The problem was the sergeant we love so much repeatedly mentioned me and the MMPCIA president by name and then went into detail about exactly how we’ve been working closely with him. That wouldn’t have been a huge problem except there was someone in attendance who’s quite friendly with the drug dealers on our block (I don’t think he’s involved in dealing, but some of the dealers are his friends). He made a beeline to the front of the room at the end of the meeting and tried to get the 3 page list we gave the sergeant. Luckily he didn’t get to see it.

Going to bed that night my mind was racing – wondering what we should do now that the information was out. It felt a lot like being outed – only this time the consequence could be physical violence against me if the people we’re fighting are so inclined. By the morning my mind was made up – double down, don’t fold. If gay history has taught us anything it’s to stand up and be counted. Luckily the MMPCIA president felt the same way (after a period of thinking we should lay low).

Three days after the meeting, narcotics (not the sergeant I’ve been working with) did a major action on our block. They first arrested the drug dealer’s customers and got them to say who sold them the drugs, and then arrested the dealer (who deals out of his SUV). Actually, I don’t know for sure that he was arrested – he (and his wife) weren’t in cuffs when they left with the police. But that was early Friday evening and we haven’t seen him since (knock wood).

There still plenty more to be done in the neighborhood. We’ll be working closely with residents, NYPD and the DA’s office to identify and resolve the problem spots in the historic district. I can’t mention details that aren’t public, but there’s plenty to work on and we’ll continue to “beat upwind” to make our neighborhood better…

Before I end this topic – I’d like to ask you to support NYPD on Stop & Frisk. When you see a stop & frisk action it may look suspicious to you, but realize that often it’s based on information from credible witnesses the officers can’t reveal because it would put the witness at risk. Case and point, a homeless man was sitting next to a playground in the area stroking himself through his pants while looking at the children. He was clearly a pedophile and when confronted by a MMPCIA community member he refused to stop – in fact he was rather belligerent. The police were called and the bystanders didn’t understand what was going on – it looked like the police were just hassling a homeless guy. The police wound up having to be pretty rough with him and he charged police abuse which just fueled the suspicions of the bystanders. It looked bad, but the police were just doing their job – and stopping pedophiles from jacking off to children playing in a playground is a job I think we all want them to do. If you want to see Harlem improve, don’t take stop & frisk away from them – it’s a vital tool they need to do their jobs. That said, I do believe stop & frisk has to be done intelligently, and with “courtesy, professionalism and respect” – there are limits.

Ultimately I think stop & frisk is a problem because good people do nothing about the crime around them. I’ve seen a lot of this in Harlem – too often long time residents just feel powerless to change their community or they rationalize it by saying “it was here before I got here, it will be here after I’m gone”. They’ve stopped beating upwind and are letting the wind blow them and their community onto the rocks. I won’t judge whether that was a valid survival strategy in the past, but from what I’ve seen Harlem has changed a lot and the power is on our side now – we just need to utilize the power we already have. Most of the long-time residents want the community to improve, even if they feel powerless to bring the change about; and the vast majority of homeowners want things to change, even if they do nothing for fear something will happen to their kids. Even many of the renters want change – though they don’t typically have “skin in the game” the same way property owners do.

I really think block associations & neighborhood watches, working in concert with NYPD, can make a huge difference. We’ll never get rid of all the problems, but if we take back our streets, and stop at least the obvious problems, I think everyone’s lives will improve.