Knowledgeable Tenants Challenge Lack of Utilities, Shady Landlord Tactics
BY WINNIE McCROY | As rents continue to skyrocket in the Chelsea area, some landlords are going to extreme lengths to ditch existing tenants, spruce up their units, and rent them at much higher rates as “luxury apartments.” But tenants who want to remain in their homes are becoming increasingly savvy, reaching out to the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) and their elected officials at the first sign of violations.
For Kelly Maurer and Jordan Lage, longtime residents at 311 W. 21st St., the last straw came earlier this month, when their 12-year-old daughter was hit in the head during softball practice. After taking her to the emergency room, they returned to a home that had no gas to cook her dinner, no hot water for her to take a bath, and no heat.
“That was when I said to myself, ‘Enough!’ We have lived in this building for 18 years and it’s our home,” said Maurer. “But all of the renters who were not regulated have been pushed out, our gas has been off for over a year, no maintenance is being done except trash removal, and we often have no heat or hot water.”
Following a gas leak, Con Edison cut off the gas in February 2016. The building’s owner, Sidney Rubell, secured permits from the DOB on May 23, 2016 for construction on the gas system in the five-story building. But in August 2016, Rubell sold the building to a new landlord: New York City Management Corporation.
The DOB said they issued a Stop Work Order on the gas line job on December 19, 2016, after the contractor listed on the permit withdrew from the job. The order was rescinded on March 9, 2017, after the owners hired a new contractor to supersede the original permit holder. By that point, the building’s residents had been without cooking gas for a year.
In June 2016, Canadian transplant Alison Moore moved into the building after marrying her high school sweetheart, Dwight, who has lived there since 1994. She said she was struck by its condition, but made the best of it by purchasing an electric skillet, kettle, rice cooker, and Keurig to “try and round out our ability to cook for ourselves.”
RESIDENTS’ OPTIMISM WANES | Lage, who called while on business in China just to share his story, said that initially, representatives from NYC Management Corp. assured him that they wanted to come in and do renovations to make the building nicer for everyone. But over time, that didn’t seem to be the case.
“As it turns out, they were being disingenuous,” said Lage. “They didn’t come out and say they were trying to get as many people as possible out of the building so they could renovate these into luxury duplexes and jack up the rent, but that’s what has become clear to the tenants that still remain.”
Other tenants told him that the landlord sent workers to their apartments, ostensibly to replace the gas lines. But they were disconcerted when workers who didn’t appear to be from the gas company arrived to measure their entire apartment with 3D-imaging scanning machines.
Lage said they later discovered those workers were from the property management firm Archidata. Tenants were advised by the DOB that if the landlord insisted the measurements were necessary, they should instruct him to “get it in writing from the DOB, then you come down to us and verify it.”
“That had nothing to do with replacing the gas lines,” said Lage angrily. “It all points to one thing, which is that they want to get as many people out as they legally can. They want to attract people of higher socioeconomic strata that Kelly and I.”
Moore recalls allowing these so-called “gas inspectors” into her apartment, saying, “A woman in high heels and a fur coat showed up with a team of three very young workers, and wanted to walk through my whole apartment with their 3D device. I tend to be very trusting that people are abiding by the law, but I’d never seen this scale of rampant deception and lying. It turns out they came to measure our spaces. They weren’t gas repair people, and no gas line repairs were ever made.”
By then, Lage and his wife had spoken with folks at City Hall, the DOB, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) about the lack of gas, but were advised to either take their new landlord to Housing Court over the lack of services or ask for a rent reduction.
A spokesperson at HPD told Chelsea Now, “HPD is aware of maintenance concerns in this building and continues to closely monitor the situation. HPD issued violations for lack of heat and hot water, which were subsequently remedied by the owner and verified by HPD as resolved. HPD has a pending lawsuit against the owner seeking to compel the owner to resolve all other violations, including the outstanding problems with the lack of cooking gas.”
PATTERN OF HARASSMENT? | Although no real construction has begun at 311 W. 21st St., tenants say they are already experiencing some of the early stages of what has become known as “construction as harassment” (as noted by Chelsea Now in April 2016).
Maurer said that neighbors have become accustomed to calling 311 every week to complain about random shutdowns of the building’s heat and hot water. Moore said her husband had gotten used to taking cold showers every morning. Health issues prevent her from doing the same, so bathing has been confined to the times when there is hot water available.
“Every time they do it, we call 311 and complain, and they jump through hoops to file a report and fix it,” said Moore. “The building turns it on long enough for the complaint to go away, but the next day they turn it off again.”
Moore said the apartments are often freezing during the night, compelling her and Dwight to each sleep wearing hoodies and two pairs of socks. Several tenants reported getting sick from the lack of heat.
“But the most difficult thing is that we no longer have a front door buzzer,” said Moore. “There’s no way to communicate with people at the door. We can hear them buzz, but we often have to run down five flights to let them in.”
Residents later discovered that the landlord had applied for a permit with the DOB, claiming the building was unoccupied with no rent-stabilized or rent-controlled tenants, and no need for tenant protection. That’s when they knew it was time to take things to the next level.
DOB REJECTS LANDLORD’S PERMIT | At their wit’s end, tenants finally reached out to Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office and described the situation. Maurer said she was stunned to receive a return call in 15 minutes. Johnson’s office worked to get the original owners’ name off the permit. But soon after, NYC Management had their names put on the same permit. Maurer went back to Johnson’s office, and they got the DOB to revoke that particular permit.
“My office has met with the tenants at 311 West 21st Street and we have engaged the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development on this property,” Johnson told Chelsea Now. “Earlier this month, DOB conducted a special audit for falsifying their work permit, which said that this building was unoccupied and did not have rent-regulated tenants living in the building. DOB has disapproved their work permit and we will continue to work with city agencies and the tenants living in this building to ensure they are safe and are able to remain in their homes.”
A representative at the DOB said they conducted an audit of 311 W. 21st St. on March 31, and it failed. The landlord was cited for falsification of PW1 (Plan/Work) occupancy and stabilization, the need for tenant protections on a work permit, and was found in violation of “energy compliance regulations.”
They were given a notice to revoke that permit. A few days later, Maurer discovered via the DOB website that NYC Management Corp. had resubmitted an application for another permit, again alleging that the building was unoccupied with no rent-stabilized or rent-controlled tenants, and no need for tenant protections.
The DOB said the permit application was denied on April 7 during the scheduled exam plan, noting that they will continue to closely monitor this property to ensure the safety of the tenants.
As Johnson noted, “Tenants have a right to be safe in their homes, and landlords must abide by the law when filing for work permits. Unfortunately, with real estate prices at record highs and a desire to expedite construction activities, some bad actors will stop at nothing to force tenants out of their rent-regulated units by refusing their tenants the required protection plans.”
Maurer admitted that after attending a community meeting hosted by Borough President Gale Brewer’s office, she had met many people whose situations were even worse than theirs. But, she said, “Why should we wait for horrible things to happen here? I’m the mother of a 12-year-old, and I don’t want to wait until there’s lead dust flying through the air. It is very frightening.”
In the face of mounting cases like this, elected officials have begun fighting back. City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal’s “Intro No. 1523” seeks to create a new office of Tenant Advocate at the DOB. And Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s new legislation, proposed on April 12, would strengthen existing tenant harassment laws, and make it easier to prosecute landlords who force rent-regulated tenants to vacate.
“Look, we understand that the building has been purchased, and they have the right to do construction, but they have to do it legally,” said Maurer. “When we’re dealing constantly with false work permits, it’s hard to believe anything else they say. They are working from the point of view of ‘you don’t exist, your homes don’t exist, and therefore we don’t have to protect you.’ ”
New York City Management Corp. did not respond to Chelsea Now’s repeated requests for comment.