Report Exposes Lying Landlords, Devious Developers
BY EILEEN STUKANE | Chelsea residents have reached their limit of tolerating the intolerable when it comes to gutting and renovating properties around existing tenants who are then forced to live on a construction site — often without water, gas, or electricity, but with plenty of dust and noise — or move out.
The Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA) and Save Chelsea have come together to create the Community & Residents Protection Working Group (CRP), which has delved into the complicated application processes and codes at the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) to flush out those owners, landlords and developers who receive DOB permits for construction by lying on their applications.
On April 16, the Housing, Health & Human Services Committee (HHH) of Community Board 4 (CB4) witnessed an eye-opening power point presentation from CRP’s Andra Mooney — who spoke in front of projections of actual online applications for building construction on which owners had indicated that buildings were not occupied and not rent-regulated, when they were indeed occupied and rent-regulated. The DOB has no digital check that will create a bounce-back for an incorrect filing, even though a building’s current status usually exists within DOB’s very own records.
By falsifying a permit application, technically, according to DOB Form PW1, section 26, an owner/landlord does not have to institute a Tenant Protection Plan. This means that the need to guarantee tenants a means of egress, fire safety, structural safety, certain health requirements, noise restrictions and housing standards as required by New York State’s Tenant Protection Unit of the Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR) can be disregarded. After all, if a building has no tenants and is not rent-regulated, why is there a need for Tenant Protection? As Mooney pointed out, tenants finding themselves in unlivable situations often do not know they have the right to tenant protection because they see the posted permits and believe that they have no recourse.
TENANTS FLEE, AND SO DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Last November, CRP canvassed a handful of blocks, primarily in Chelsea, looking into the validity of permits posted for construction, and found that 41 buildings had illegal permits obtained through false information provided by owners who stated that there were no tenants and no rent regulated apartments in their buildings, and more recently, 39 other buildings were added to the list. Whether it was 264-288 W. 25th St., or 216-218 W. 22nd St., or 421 W. 21st St., or the removal of a load-bearing wall at 169 Ninth Ave. (aka 400 W. 20th St.), the story was always the same — falsification of information resulting in illegal permits with no tenant protection plan in place, and the landlords making daily life difficult to force out tenants. At 245 W. 25th St. the elevator was shut down while a woman in a wheelchair was in residence. Falsifiers included Madison Capital, Croman, and Icon, among others.
Since many vacated apartments are rent-regulated, the end result is that the number of the city’s affordable housing units are being systematically reduced as the vacated apartments are renovated and brought to market value, or transformed into co-ops. This practice, which runs counter to Mayor de Blasio’s drive to retain affordable housing, is moving across the city, throughout the boroughs, like a wave.
NEW CONSEQUENCES FOR OLD PATTERNS OF ABUSE
Penalties for filing false statements can range from $4,800 to $25,000 — but the falsification has not been brought into the public light until now. Tenant complaints to DOB often go unheeded. CRP pushed to have a DOB inspector look into 308 W. 22nd St., where there was an illegal permit and no tenant protection plan while interior demolition was in progress. The DOB’s judgment was to fine the owner $400 and ask for the tenant protection plan — barely a slap on the wrist.
Bill Borock, CCBA president, spoke out at the CB4 HHH Committee meeting, saying that the CRP has already had two meetings attended by representatives of various city and state agencies and elected officials. The subject of DOB inspectors was raised because they do not investigate, in other words, walk into a building, when they check posted permits. “DOB liaison Byron Munez came to our second meeting, and one of our suggestions was that when DOB inspectors come to a building, see if it’s actually occupied,” said Borock. “Why can’t inspectors do more than just look at a permit? Why can’t they go back and say a building is occupied and should be penalized? His (Munez) answer was, ‘That’s not his job responsibility,’ which is ridiculous.”
Change is in the wind, however, with the new Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force instituted by Mayor de Blasio and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in February. Driven by Schneiderman, this task force is trying to bring together city agencies such as DOB and the NYC Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), as well as the state’s DHCR Tenant Protection Unit — agencies which usually operate separately. The goal is to prevent unscrupulous landlords from subjecting tenants to unbearable living conditions in order to force them out.
The task force has started to show its muscle. Tenants became the victors in Brooklyn this month when two landlords, the brothers Joel and Aaron Israel of JBI Management, were arrested by Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson for fraud, grand larceny, criminal mischief, falsifying business records and unlawful eviction. The brothers reportedly blasted a hole into one family’s Bushwick apartment and harassed tenants in their rent-regulated Greenpoint and Williamsburg properties.
Mooney also reminded that the state’s Tenant Protection Unit had recently brought 38,000 apartments back into the rent regulation registries.
At the end of the impressive CRP presentation, the HHH Committee was decidedly concerned and began formulating a response letter to pressure the DOB. Since the presentation data had shown that people in rent-regulated Chelsea buildings were being subjected to living on construction sites lacking the basic amenities, it was decided to ask for an immediate Stop Work order at those sites. Also, an audit of the rent-regulated status of the buildings should be required. (It was additionally found by the CRP that documents are falsified in reference to gas pipelines and other utilities in buildings. An audit might prevent a future tragedy, as occurred in the buildings involved in the recent gas explosion in the East Village.) Offenders should be penalized much more harshly than they are currently, with only minimal fines. The contents of the letter would also include a request that a tenant safety plan be posted publicly on occupied buildings once a permit had been properly granted.
WHY AREN’T FALSE CLAIMS BEING BOUNCED BACK?
What seems so logical but is at present nonexistent, is that a false claim entered online on a DOB application for a construction permit is not invalidated by a bounce-back to the applicant. A technological upgrade could cross-check information and prevent a falsifying applicant from continuing. CB4 agreed with CRP to recommend upgrading, a move by the DOB that would automatically ensure greater tenant safety. Mooney suggested that city and state agencies also include FAQ pages on their websites to answer simple questions such as: “The owners are doing construction in my building. What are my rights?”
HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION
Anyone who is experiencing harassment from a landlord can call in a complaint to 311 or phone the NYC Tenant Protection Hotline: 917-661-4505.
Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office offers housing clinics the second Tuesday of every month, 5:30-7:30 p.m., 224 W. 30th St, Suite 1206. Attorneys are available to offer free legal advice on a first come/first serve basis.
Chelsea Coalition on Housing meets every Thursday, 7 p.m., Fulton Center, 119 Ninth Ave. (btw. W. 17th & 18th Sts.). Housing advocates and tenant attorneys offer expertise and free legal advice on a first come/first serve basis.