"Cold" is something Valerie Egan has trouble getting used to—according to her, last year the furnace in her apartment building broke down over the Christmas holiday and wasn't fixed for five days. The furnace is working this winter—but the landlord, Capital Property Management, has only been turning it on twice a day. Egan's apartment hovers at about 60 degrees, she says. "It's just really cold.
"My roommate and I literally sit around in our down jackets," says Egan, who lives in the Santa Barbara on SE 20th and Hawthorne, "one of the more sought-after properties in the area," according to Capital's website.
The whole building is on one heating schedule, and has a vintage furnace; individual apartments can't control their own heat, and if the furnace breaks, there is no on-site manager to deal with the problem.
In October, Egan requested the heat be turned on more than twice a day—but Capital informed her they would not turn on the heat more often unless other tenants also requested it.
"I know the building was constructed in the '20s," says Egan, "but the heating situation is kind of ridiculous." Given the old wiring in the building, Egan and her roommate were forced with the choice of using the lights or a space heater.
The building was so cold last winter, Egan tried to be proactive: In December, she posted a notice in the lobby of her building stating, "If we want heat, I think we need to call."
The next day, the notice was removed. The building's maintenance manager said he didn't know who removed the notice, but added that tenants are not allowed to put up signs in the lobby.
City code says property managers have to keep apartments at least "68 degrees Fahrenheit at a point three feet from the floor in all habitable rooms." Even though this code is in place to protect tenants, it can be difficult for tenants to find and understand property codes, and to speak up for their rights, according to tenant advocates.
"We definitely hear about a lot of people who are really cold and their heating doesn't work very well," said Ari Rapkin, education program director for the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), a nonprofit that provides information about tenants' rights and runs a renters' hotline.
Capital's maintenance manager, Joe—who declined to give his last name—explained the Santa Barbara situation from the company's point of view. "Tenants pay for a pro-rated share of heat. We have to balance the request for heat with how many tenants want heat... some will be too hot, some will be too cold, and some will be just right."
Additionally, Capital does not keep track of the temperature of the building, so the tenants must make a request each year—possibly several times—before the heat will be turned on.
"It would be great if we knew what we could ask them for," says Egan, who adds that the heat policy hasn't been communicated to tenants. "I'm always afraid of asking for too much." Egan added that people in the building are concerned they'll be evicted if they complain too much, or that the building will be turned into condos.
According to Rapkin at CAT, tenants fighting for basic improvements, like heat, face significant barriers, such as no-cause evictions and unlimited rent increases—two ways annoyed landlords can force out tenants who aren't on a lease.
"As long as there is no-cause eviction and no limit on rent increase [in Oregon], tenants are going to live in fear of asking for the most basic repairs," said Rapkin.
Are there plans to upgrade the Santa Barbara's heating system, so tenants can regulate their own heat? "To install new heating is very cost prohibitive," says Joe at Capital. (The company declined to comment further on the Santa Barbara or tenants' heat concerns.)
Last Wednesday, November 28, Egan again asked if the heat could be turned on more often—but this time she asked her landlords if turning on the heat just twice a day was legal. Egan never received an answer to her email, but the heat was on when she arrived home from work.