New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 5, 2013
NEW YORK » The online listing for a condominium in Brooklyn Heights advertises five bedrooms and wide-open views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline for $4.995 million. A 19th-floor two-bedroom on East 59th Street offers floor-to-ceiling windows, a gas fireplace and two balconies; corporations and pieds-a-terre welcome, $2.495 million. And a penthouse on Greenwich Street offers a 500-square-foot terrace and a pet spa for $6.195 million.
In addition to large price tags, these listings have something else in common. They all puff out their chest to announce: This apartment has a garbage disposal.
This little appliance of convenience has been widely available in much of the country since the middle of the last century, but residential garbage disposals were, in fact, illegal in New York City until 1997. And although the laws have changed, many apartment buildings, especially older ones, continue to ban them, fearing for the health of aging pipes.
They do pop up now and again in apartment listings, especially in newer buildings. On Monday, 83 listings on the website StreetEasy considered this modest gadget, which typically costs less than $200, worth a mention, right alongside the gyms and the views, the pet wash rooms and the 24-hour doormen.
Nancy Albertson, director of leasing at Glenwood, a company that builds new rental buildings, many of which have included garbage disposals in recent years, said that when many New Yorkers saw them, they had the same reaction: "Isn't that illegal?"
No, just rare.
Michael J. Wolfe, president of Midboro Management, which manages mostly prewar co-op and condominium buildings, said that out of 95 buildings, maybe three of his prewar buildings and a few newly constructed projects allowed garbage disposals.
Garbage disposals were banned in much of the city in the 1970s over concerns for the aged sewer system. (More creative and gruesome reasons worked their way into city lore. Stuart M. Saft, the chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, said he had heard that the police feared that the bodies of murder victims might be disposed of down the drain. And in an essay in The New York Review of Books in 1991, Joan Didion wrote that a city employee had expressed concern to her that people might be tempted to "put their babies down them.")
Before lifting the ban, the city distributed more than 200 disposals to New Yorkers free for a 21-month trial run. The sewers survived, so the ban did not.
Yet years later, worry remains that the remnants of dinner will become clogged in corroding old pipes, especially in apartment buildings that were not built with in-sink disposals — or washing machines, or dishwashers — in mind. But plumbers, building managers and real estate lawyers said they were hard pressed to think of a single recent horror story of a flood or broken pipe caused by the appliance.
"It probably has a lot more to do with fear than fact," Wolfe said. "But nobody wants to be the test case."
Some plumbers do say that putting extra grease down the drain while grinding up leftovers can damage plumbing, and if every apartment in an older building suddenly put in a garbage disposal, that could cause problems over the course of many years.
The real threats to pipes, they say, comes from cat litter flushed down the toilet or a child's toy shoved into a bathtub drain. And the true dangers of garbage disposals — many of which now operate only when there is a cap on to protect wandering fingers — appear to lie elsewhere, as well.
"I was operating a garbage disposal once, and a turkey popper flew out and whacked me right in the forehead," said Steven Sladkus, a real estate lawyer, offering up one example.
Shawn Calkins, a manager at Fred Smith Plumbing and Heating Co. in Manhattan, provided another.
"Anything that can fall down there generally does," Calkins said. "Wedding rings tend to be the most common thing down garbage disposals, and toilets and sinks."
Regardless of the reasoning, Sladkus added, if a building's board wants to ban disposals, it is perfectly within its rights.
This does not mean that everybody listens.
"People sneak them in," Wolfe said, describing scenes of them being surreptitiously hustled into buildings in shopping bags. When they are discovered, his management company asks that they be removed, but some disposal lovers put up a fight. Occasionally, he said, a lawyer even gets involved.
The frequency of these sneaky instances is impossible to gauge, but Saft has a suspicion.
"My guess is everybody who modernizes a kitchen puts in a garbage disposal unit," he said. "All of a sudden, there's a plumber and a unit goes in — and gee, I don't know how that got there!"
There are plenty of new buildings, however, that have taken the plunge willingly, eager to provide an extra touch of convenience. The kitchens at Crystal Green, a Glenwood rental building on West 39th Street, include garbage disposals. As they do at the ultraluxury Midtown building One57, where two apartments are under contract for at least $90 million.
But old buildings, according to plumbers and real estate professionals, will probably continue to drag their feet.
"People are just used to doing what they've been doing for decades," said Philip J. Kraus, owner of Fred Smith Plumbing. And though he believes that disposals are not a problem, he does not have one himself — for another prototypically New York reason: space.
"I just don't happen to have enough room under my kitchen sink," Kraus said, "or I'd be happy to have one."
Besides, the garbage can is right over there.