Construction in Buildings Declared Vacant Surprises Some: The Tenants
New York Times, Mireya Navarro, September 18, 2015 original: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/19/nyregion/construction-in-buildings-declared-vacant-surprises-some-the-tenants.html?ref=topics&_r=0
Even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has made preserving and creating rent
stabilized apartments a focus of his administration, tenants and some elected
officials say that some landlords have exploited the lack of enforcement to
harass these residents into leaving their apartments, freeing them to be rented
out for more money.
“They have made our lives unbearable to see how long we can take it
before we leave,” said Maribel Rosario, 43, an executive secretary at a hospital
who said she and her husband had rejected repeated buyout offers from the
landlord at 292 Bedford. She said her young son and daughter had constant
flulike symptoms and allergies during the construction.
Even when the city becomes aware of an incorrect permit application, it
has typically allowed landlords simply to correct the paperwork and provide
the required protection plans. That does not always help, as landlords
sometimes flout the plans, tenants in some of the buildings say.
“Certainly the Buildings Department has been really falling down on the
job,” said State Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat who is among
several elected officials who met with the department on Friday over the issue.
They want the department to do more to verify occupancy status and impose
more severe penalties, especially for repeat offenders.
“Not only are landlords and developers defrauding the Buildings
Department with these filings,” Mr. Gottfried said, “but they’re also
endangering the lives and safety of tenants, as well as working to destroy
Department officials say they are aware that false filings are a problem
and have been working to upgrade their technology to identify potential
wrongdoers. One way to do that, the department and its critics agree, is to
create a system to crosscheck permits with the state’s database of rent
But Timothy E. Hogan, the deputy commissioner of enforcement, said
that “just because there’s construction it doesn’t mean there’s tenant
harassment.” Mr. Hogan said some of the inaccurate information, which can
be filled in by engineers, architects, property managers and the owners
themselves, may stem from innocent mistakes, like erroneously listing the
building as vacant because the proposed renovation is limited to a vacant floor.
He added, though, that it was “really incumbent on these licensed
professionals to be truthful.” And department officials say they are now
considering more aggressively penalizing owners who submit false
The problem appears to be so endemic that even buildings undergoing
cosmetic work sometimes give inaccurate information. The building on the
Upper West Side where City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer rents an
apartment, for instance, was recently approved for $284,100 worth of facade
repairs, even though it listed the building as unoccupied. (The building’s
management did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)
Tenant groups and lawyers say false information on permits is widespread
in neighborhoods where the market can sustain the transformation of rent
stabilized apartments into expensive rentals.
A neighborhood group in Chelsea known as Community Residents
Protection compiled a list of several dozen occupied buildings where it
suspected permit falsifications, and city building officials have so far
confirmed 41 had incorrect filings. The department issued violations for the
false filings, which carry fines of $1,200 to $4,800, as well as stopwork
orders, officials said.
Only one case was considered tenant harassment, building officials said;
that case was referred to a citystate tenant protection task force.
At 292 Bedford, the city did not issue violations related to the permit
application and many other complaints until this year, after the building’s
manager, Isaac Rosenberg, 27, was charged in February with bribing city
housing inspectors to dismiss violations for mold, lack of heat and other
problems there and elsewhere.
Mr. Rosenberg has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer, Kevin Keating, said
he would not comment on the charges or the false filings.
The incorrect permit applications, first filed in 2013, were signed by
Cheski Weiss (also listed on a permit application as Cheskie Weisz), a
managing member of the corporation that owns the building. Mr. Weiss did
not return calls for comment.
Violations involving false permit applications are infrequent — about 100
were issued last year out of more than 77,000 permits for residential work.
Building officials say the sheer number of applications makes it unfeasible to
verify the occupancy status for each one.
Prosecutions are even rarer, and usually involve a pattern of antitenant
In two criminal cases brought against Brooklyn landlords and one
engineer this year — and in a civil case against a Manhattan landlord settled
out of court — owners who were accused of lying about occupancy on permits
were also accused of actions such as cutting off heat and other essential
services, exposing residents to excessive dust, noise and lead, and wrecking
kitchens and bathrooms, all to force tenants to leave.
“Lying on forms that are designed to protect tenants is a very serious
offense, whether on its own or as part of a larger scheme to harass and evict
New Yorkers,” the attorney general’s office, which brought charges in one of
the criminal cases, said in a statement.
Residents at another building, 15 West 55th Street in Manhattan, who are
mostly elderly rentstabilized tenants, have complained to the city of
unpermitted work, damage to walls and floors and drilling “for hours” as
sections of the building are being turned into a membersonly club for the
designer Domenico Vacca.
Some permit applications for the work listed the building as vacant, but in
July a liaison from the Buildings Department told tenant representatives that
the paperwork had been corrected and that a tenant protection plan would be
in effect to limit noise, restrict construction hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on
weekdays and keep debris, dirt and dust “at a minimum.”
Weeks later, though, tenants said that the plan had not been enforced,
and that noise and work outside the scope of the permit continues.
“I feel they just give them carte blanche on the permits,” said Marilyn
Hemery, 78, a legal secretary who came home recently to find a hole in her
bathroom floor that allowed her to see through to the vacant apartment below.
The building’s owner, the developer Salim Assa, said through a
spokeswoman that “the architect made a mistake” when filing the original
paperwork for the permit.
In an Aug. 14 response to a letter sent by Mr. Gottfried and other elected
officials on behalf of the tenants, a department official, Reynaldo Cabrera,
officer of a new office created this year to pursue complaints against building
owners, said the department “continues to investigate the matter.”
But Building Department officials said they had checked out the
numerous complaints and issued violations when warranted. However, the
department said in a statement, “there are numerous unsubstantiated
complaints at this property where the owner had the proper permits, and was
not engaged in any unsafe construction at the time of inspection.”
Across the street from Mr. Stringer’s building on the Upper West Side,
tenants have organized to battle gut renovations and scaffolding that deprived
them of their use of terraces and exposed them to construction dust with lead.
The building, which is owned by the Brodsky Organization, led by Daniel
Brodsky, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was
ordered by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to clean up
the dust and minimize it in the future.
The permit applications said the building was unoccupied. The Buildings
Department issued stopwork orders and violations this summer for work
done without permits and for the false tenant information claims, but found
no harassment. The owners corrected the permits and put in a tenant
protection plan, officials said.
In a statement, the Brodsky Organization said, “We continue to maintain
a safe building first and foremost, and are correcting any permitting issues
that have occurred in the building.”
The building, known as the South Pierre, has 302 units, of which 138 are
rentstabilized, a spokeswoman said. Tenants said they feared the construction
was part of an effort to try to get more rentstabilized tenants out.
“The city is not as vigilant as it could be,” Susan Schwartz, a tenant leader
in the building, said. “When the tenants are complaining, it doesn’t seem to
carry a lot of weight.”
Correction: September 18, 2015
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a tenant
leader in a building known as the South Pierre. She is Susan
Schwartz, not Schwarz.
Paige Pagan contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on September 19, 2015, on page A15 of the New York
edition with the headline: Construction at Buildings Declared Vacant Surprises Some: The Tenants.