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I prefer to sleep unsquashed by bathtubs.
April 11, 2011 3:28 PM   Subscribe

How worried should I be about the possibility of a bathtub killing me in my sleep? I wish I were joking.

Hi, I live in a building owned by a famous NYC slumlord. Pipes burst in my building so often that the fire department is investigating (since we tenants keep calling them over to shut off the water). Twice, a pipe has burst directly above my bedroom, resulting in brown ceiling rain soaking my bedding. The most recent time this happened (a few weeks ago) the pipe burst in the apartment two levels above mine (4). This caused the ceiling in the below apartment (3) to collapse. I live below that apartment (2). My ceiling got some water, but not as much as 3. I happen to know that 3's bathroom/kitchen (yes) is directly above my bed. So if my ceiling/3's floor collapsed, a bathtub would fall on my bed.

What... do I do... about this? Should I be unconcerned since I got less water and my ceiling has not already collapsed? Or should I be super concerned because there's probably mold weakening it and it might snap at any time?

I move out in June. I want to live to see June. Please advise.
posted by prefpara to Home & Garden (46 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This is a really, really dumb question, but can you move your bed, or is the room too small? Better yet, can you sleep in another room?
posted by tully_monster at 3:31 PM on April 11, 2011

I would move the bed as far away from the center (least-supported area) of the room and have it hug a side. Preferably a side right by the door to allow for easy escape. (If your room is too small to allow for much bed movement, then I don't know what to tell you.)

I'd also duct-tape a tarp across the ceiling to catch the nasty water and keep it from falling all over your things, angling it down to a bucket or something at one corner.
posted by phunniemee at 3:34 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why are you moving out in June? Can you move out sooner? Like immediately? You probably won't get your security deposit back unless you go to court (though small claims court is an option), but is your slumlord really going to sue you over the month's rent or so and can he possibly win when ceilings are collapsing and pipes are bursting all the time? You're lying awake at night worried a bathtub will fall on to your head. I'd get the heck out of there.
posted by zachlipton at 3:34 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

To clarify:

My room is too small to move my bed more than six inches in any direction.

I have a roommate, so just ditching would have consequences for her, since she would be liable to the landlord for my portion of the rent. And both of us have guarantors.

I can't sleep in another room unless I sleep in a chair. I tried that during the first ceiling rain incident, and it was pretty miserable.
posted by prefpara at 3:37 PM on April 11, 2011

A ceiling has collapsed already. I'd be moving out - just because the water is in that area of your apartment, doesn't mean that's the only structural damage that's occurring.
posted by SMPA at 3:38 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not being snarky, but you don't have a couch? Or can you blow up an air mattress and put it in the living room or hallway until you move? Seriously, a bit of inconvenience is worth it if you're honestly worried about being crushed by a bathtub.
posted by patheral at 3:40 PM on April 11, 2011

I can't sleep in another room unless I sleep in a chair.

Really, there's no room for a sleeping bag, in such a dire situation?
posted by John Cohen at 3:46 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's extraordinarily unlikely that all the joists supporting that bathtub will fail simultaneously. Even if one or two fail, and the tub starts collapsing into your room, I'm pretty sure the crashing noises should be sufficient to wake you before the rest of them collapsed.

So, clearly not a good situation, but I'd be surprised if it's life-threatening.
posted by adamrice at 3:48 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would suggest going to see a renter's advocacy group. They're good. If there's any way for you to get out of your lease early, given the gross and dangerous situation you're in, they'll find it.
posted by meese at 3:51 PM on April 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

311 - get the inspectors in the building.
posted by JPD at 3:52 PM on April 11, 2011 [20 favorites]

First, I love this question and find it pretty funny.

I think your options are staying in another room or staying with a friend. Maybe you can also sleep in your roommate's room.
posted by amodelcitizen at 3:53 PM on April 11, 2011

If you can't or won't move out before June, perhaps you could consider renting space in one of those storage warehouse places (perhaps splitting the cost with your roommate), and at least put as much as you can of your stuff out of reach of future flooding or collapses.
posted by easily confused at 3:54 PM on April 11, 2011

Let me allay, or at least clarify, your fears. A bathtub is structurally supported on joists that are designed to carry the load of a tub full of water. It is highly unlikely that even an extended leak that promoted wood rot would weaken the entire set of joists such that the bathtub could fall through them. Especially in older buildings, these joists would be of dense, heavy wood that is typically stronger than modern fast-grown tree-farm pine construction.

On the other hand, leaks very often will weaken ceiling and wall plaster, which over time will separate from the lath and, well, fall on the room below. It is this that happened up above, and this is what I'd worry about. It can be surprising and painful. But it also needs to get wet and stay wet for a while, and you'd probably notice a drip or other water passage -- at least, discoloration (generally an unpleasant poop brown, even from a clean water line). If this happens, you'll probably have days or weeks before the plaster gets so waterlogged it begins to pull away from the lath, and even then it tends to have a pretty good structural quality to itself preventing collapse. So watch for discoloration or plaster developing a bow in your general direction.

As for the 311 suggestion, I do endorse this. Landlords like this need to be kept to heel.
posted by dhartung at 3:56 PM on April 11, 2011 [10 favorites]

I believe adamrice is correct. There's a distinction between the ceiling materials which are tacked onto the subfloor and the joists and flooring itself.

If you carve a hole in the ceiling of my 1930s era house you will be initially removing plaster and lath which is tacked to floor joists which bear the actual load. Laid on top of those joists are sub-flooring and above that is hardwood. None of that stuff is really structurally relevant other than the joists which are 4x10 inches.

Can they rot and fail? Sure. Is it possible this building you reside in is constructed in such a way that the load-bearing structures don't exist over your head? Possibly. Hopefully some structural engineer will pop into this question and give a more exact answer.

However even structural supports aside, work done remotely to code will have above-average support under a tub. It pretty much has to if the whole thing hasn't come through already. A tub full of water is VERY heavy.

You are likely safe (from a tub fall, anyway - perhaps less so from mold and other nasties)
posted by phearlez at 4:01 PM on April 11, 2011

Another clarification:

I would be shocked if there were joists or structural supports for the tub of any kind. This building was originally a whorehouse ("hotel for sailors") and was not designed to contain kitchens or in-room bathtubs (there are still toilet stalls off the hallways and they periodically flood as well). My understanding is that my neighbor's tub is just sitting on a regular floor.

Would 311 actually send a building inspector? Would a building inspector really be able to tell whether my ceiling was in danger of collapse? By like... looking at it?

When I get home, I will ask my neighbor how extensive her ceiling collapse was. I haven't actually seen the damage, but from the construction noises assumed it was something more serious than plaster separating. I could be wrong, that would be nice, I would like to be wrong about that.
posted by prefpara at 4:03 PM on April 11, 2011

Seconding the advice to call an inspector-- Even if you could move out right this instant, would you really feel good about leaving it for the next tenant to live with?
posted by mingo_clambake at 4:03 PM on April 11, 2011

How on EARTH can you possibly sleep in your bed in this situation? On top of the whole bath tub crashing down I'd keep picturing that creepy-ass ceiling in Dark Water. I vote for sleeping bag in another room, or some kind of canopy (with a strong framework) over your bed.
posted by Go Banana at 4:04 PM on April 11, 2011

As someone who's seen a bathtub fall through a rickety old floor/ceiling, it is important to note that the whole thing doesn't just drop straight down like in cartoons. Assuming one joist fails first (most likely), it will slide down in the direction of the drop. And it'll take a LOT of debris with it. It is more likely that a piece of your ceiling with drop on you, which is totally shitty, but won't kill you.

Also, it's unlikely that water from a burst pipe is going to bring it down. Even really old wood doesn't disintegrate upon contact with water (actually, older wood is better because it's more likely to be from old-growth forests that were still being logged back in the day). The falling bathtub I witnessed was a rickety old house full of about 150, all simultaneously jumping up and down in rhythm to the sound of punk rock. And even then, the side of the wall broke the bathtub's fall, it dropped about three feet.

That being said, you should definitely go to some tenants rights groups and find a new place to live. I hear Prospect-Lefferts Gardens is nice.
posted by Jon_Evil at 4:08 PM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do call 311 for all incidents. Including water shut offs, water leaking, lack of heat/hot water and so on. It creates a public record of what has happened and often will result in inspection and fines for your landlord.

Please check on your building at the HPD online site. It can be entertaining if nothing else. It will also help you when you look for a new apartment.

My building has hundreds of open violations.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:15 PM on April 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

neighbor's tub is just sitting on a regular floor.

Joists hold up floors, not tubs specifically. The point of joists and beams is to distribute the load placed on any one point across the entire structure. So, while undoubtedly the load of the building is being pushed, where the tub is doesn't matter terribly.
posted by Jon_Evil at 4:18 PM on April 11, 2011

Phearlez' accurately describes a standard floor construction for just about any house from that era. In some areas, houses from the turn of the century just had bathrooms added wherever they would fit because indoor plumbing wasn't available until later. So, there will be joists under the tub.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:21 PM on April 11, 2011

This caused the ceiling in the below apartment (3) to collapse.

Standard procedure is for the Fire Department to investigate any collapse -- do you know if a ladder company responded to that incident and if a report was filed?
posted by mlis at 4:24 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

OMG sciencegeek.


It's only showing me complaints going back to May 2010. So at least three different apartments have had issues with ceiling collapses in the last year alone.


MLIS, I do not know whether or not the fire department responded to the ceiling collapse. I was away from home at the time.
posted by prefpara at 4:25 PM on April 11, 2011

I would get a hold of the local Tenants Rights Group and see what to do from there.
Sorry, but there's no way in hell I would stay in that building and risk my well-being or my stuff getting damaged.
posted by KogeLiz at 4:28 PM on April 11, 2011

My building has 287 open violations. It was suggested to me that I call my local councilman. I did and his stellar suggestion was to move out. That said, my apartment is not actively dangerous. I'd give a call to your local councilperson and see if anything happens. I'd also get the heck out of there if at all possible. I hear that there are open apartments in my building (you can't hear my bitter laughter, can you?).

Good luck.

I will say this: it is strangely cathartic to make up a list of complaints about your building and then call 311 and get them all in the system. You can do this once a week if you're feeling feisty. The 311 operators I've spoken with have been quite nice.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:38 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

A bathtub is not likely to fall on your head. As has been said, "ceiling collapse" means that the plaster and lath on the underside of the floor above have been soaked through and are falling down — not that the floor itself is going to give way and the contents of the apartment above are going to descend into yours.

So you only have to worry about sodden plaster, which weighs at least 10 lb/ft², falling on your face from 8–10 feet above.

You could get a bunk bed, and sleep in the bottom...
posted by nicwolff at 4:45 PM on April 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't have any solutions, but its not an unreasonable fear. My friend who lives in a nice upper east side apartment had their upstairs neighbors toilet come crashing through the ceiling of their bathroom a while back. Destroyed their bathroom. Would definitely have killed someone had they been in there.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:56 PM on April 11, 2011

A tent.

And yeah, if there's a tax-funded agency you can use to do your bidding and tenacously crawl up this guy's ass, use it.
posted by rhizome at 4:59 PM on April 11, 2011

Because it's not an old, stately, brownstone built for people of wealth but a likely shittily and cheaply constructed building made for poor people that has been badly maintained, I would NOT assume that it has floors built to code/built safely. Old does not necessarily equal high-quality construction.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:42 PM on April 11, 2011

If I had absolutely no choice but to sleep beneath a bathtub that could fall on me at any moment, I would get myself to Home Depot and build a heavy-duty canopy out of some 4x4's, some 6x2's and some stiff plywood that would save me should anything bad happen. I would put it as close the the ceiling as possible without breaking code to prevent any bathtubs picking up speed on the way down.
posted by Foam Pants at 6:00 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it not possible to talk to upstairs neighbours, and ask if you can get advance warning if they were to take a bath?
posted by lundman at 6:41 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

My vote is to put living room furniture in storage if you have to, so you can move your bed into the living room.
I really wouldn't care how strange it looks for the next 2 1/2 months, you've got to get out of the bedroom!
posted by calgirl at 6:49 PM on April 11, 2011

I (finally) joined metafilter to answer this question but Foam Pants beat me to the 4x4 answer. However, I think there is a simpler way to give you some peace of mind. If your ceiling is 8' high and your room is about 6' wide (based on not being able to move the bed more than 6" in either direction) then a 10' long 4x4 would fit perfectly across the room. Buy two, lean them against the wall from the ceiling on one side to the floor on the other side of the room. This way, you create a safe little triangle to sleep under. Tub falls through, runs into the 4x4s, and slides down away from you to the other side of the room. The 4x4s shouldn't cost much. Bonus points: Staple a tarp across the beams to catch any water or debris. I made a laughable diagram of this.
posted by stephennelson at 6:53 PM on April 11, 2011 [31 favorites]

I would suggest talking to a tenant's rights organization or legal aid pronto; it has been awhile since I touched any landlord-tenant law in New York State, but in circumstances like you describe it is sometimes possible to get out of the lease (and possibly get an abatement) on warranty of habitability grounds.

Scouting a new place in advance is a good idea if you go with this option.

posted by AV at 6:54 PM on April 11, 2011

I'm not saying this to make you paranoid, just to offer some first hand experience. A friend of mine lived in a small, 3 floor apartment building in Windsor Terrace Brooklyn.

One evening my buddy got home from a bar, and most of the ceiling in his bedroom had fallen onto his bed. There were huge chunks of wood, metal, sharp nails and all kinds of other heavy building materials covering his bed and more than half his bedroom. If he were asleep when the ceiling fell he definitely would have been killed.

I would be concerned. Crazy things like this do actually happen in poorly maintained NYC buildings.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:43 PM on April 11, 2011

Can you not drag your mattress out into the living room or another room? If it's a space issue, you can stand it up against the wall every morning after waking.
posted by yawper at 8:17 PM on April 11, 2011

You can legally break a lease if the landlord has not provided livable space. The small size of your room is actually a good thing; the joists above you are spanning a smaller span; even so, I'd consider getting the heck out.
posted by theora55 at 8:19 PM on April 11, 2011

"What... do I do... about this? Should I be unconcerned since I got less water and my ceiling has not already collapsed? Or should I be super concerned because there's probably mold weakening it and it might snap at any time?"

No one can really answer this question without inspecting the structure. Normally the floor above you should handle this kind of load but your situation is far from normal. It is distressingly common for hack plumbers to cut through structural framing members in even brand new construction. An older structure with several renovations is even more likely to have this problem. A leak as slow as a drip every hour can dangerously weaken wood framing over a long period.

dhartung writes "Let me allay, or at least clarify, your fears. A bathtub is structurally supported on joists that are designed to carry the load of a tub full of water. It is highly unlikely that even an extended leak that promoted wood rot would weaken the entire set of joists such that the bathtub could fall through them. Especially in older buildings, these joists would be of dense, heavy wood that is typically stronger than modern fast-grown tree-farm pine construction."

While some material may have been better back in the day standards and technology were lower. However the main concern is the poor maintenance record. The best materials in the world are only going to do so much to mitigate crappy maintenance. I've seen plenty of floors in bathrooms (usually around toilets that can leak at the flange without people noticing) soft enough to put your foot through. I replaced a floor and all the joists in a large bath and laundry room last year after the toilet yielded to gravity when the home owner sat on it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:37 PM on April 11, 2011

Your moveout date is approx. 2 months away. Do you have any friends you can stay with for some or all of that? If not, can you try couchsurfing? It's inconvenient, but it's only 2 months. You might even meet some nice people.

If you really don't want to do that, can you just sleep on the floor in another room? It's really not so bad, and much better than sleeping on a chair.
posted by egg drop at 11:39 PM on April 11, 2011

My suggestion would have essentially added a new subfloor/joist to the room. stephennelson's description is much simpler and cheaper.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:40 PM on April 11, 2011

Electric inflatable air mattress are pretty cheap with one you could sleep in the living room or the hall and just deflate in in the morning.

There comfortable and its only two months. I don't think I could sleep with the worry of the situation.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 4:43 AM on April 12, 2011

The problem is that New York City barely enforces its own housing code. Landlords are allowed to get away with unbelievable violations. By all means, call 311. It's not completely useless, but if your landlord is a famous slumlord, I'm sure it knows exactly how little the city is going to do to make it fix the problems. I have a few suggestions that might help.

You can check and see if the building is in the Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), which is a new program where the city is supposed to actually do something about the appalling conditions in 200 buildings. I don't really know how well it's working, but a client of mine lives in one of the building and reports that some repairs are finally being done after years of neglect.

Start an HP action. Unless the problem in your ceiling is a C violation, and perhaps even if it is, you might not get actual repairs done before you move out. I don't know if it's worth it, but it's something to consider.

Ask your landlord if you can break your lease. If you're in a rent-stabilized apartment, they can get a vacancy increase after you move out (yes, they'll charge some poor soul 20% more than you're paying), so they have some incentive to let you out early.

Check out the website at Housing Court Answers and call them or some other groups listed on their website to get more specific advice. They're a non-profit advocacy group, formerly known as the City-wide Task Force on Housing Court. I think their website is the most comprehensive one out there, and the best place to start.

Personally, I wouldn't sleep under that ceiling, but not out of any special knowledge about housing conditions that I have. It would just freak me out.
posted by Mavri at 7:29 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You say you are moving out in June and don't want to stick your roommate with the rent... Is the roommate also moving out in June? Get the 2 of you together to move out ASAP.
posted by CathyG at 7:57 AM on April 12, 2011

OK. I spoke to my neighbor (3), and she clarified that what she meant by "my whole ceiling completely collapsed!!!" was more like what dhartung described - the plaster fell away exposing the beams. This was obviously terrible for her and ruined a lot of her stuff, but does not place me in deadly peril. So I'm probably not about to be bathtubbed to death. Though I guess of all deaths, I would prefer a hilarious one.

Thanks for your advice, and thank you stephennelson for your sketch. I loved it. I would only have had to modify it slightly to account for the refrigerator and stove which are across from the bathtub.
posted by prefpara at 9:02 AM on April 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

You might also want to try the Department of Building's Building Information Search, which could have a better listing of violations. (Plus, it works way better in my browser.)

Neat thing: For some buildings, they have a .pdf of the place's original Certificate of Occupancy, going back at least 100 years.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:09 PM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I felt I should update to note that I've moved out into a safe and wonderful apartment in a well-maintained building. My old apartment has not rented and I am enjoying tracking it on Craigslist as the price steadily drops and the lies steadily increase (sun-drenched! renovated! breakfast bar!).

Thanks again for your advice and the helpful explanation of plaster collapse vs. ceiling collapse. Thanks to you I regained my ability to sleep.
posted by prefpara at 9:53 AM on August 7, 2011

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