A group by the name of Stand for Tenant Safety, consisting of tenant groups and eleven City Council Members (including Rosie Mendez from the Lower East Side, Stephen Levin from Williamsburg, and Antonio Reynoso of Bushwick) rallied on the steps of City Hall this morning. Never mind the rain. The coalition is named for a new report, released today by the Urban Justice Center, that coincides with the introduction of a legislation package that would protect tenants from landlords and developers who carry out neglectful and malicious construction projects. “My tenants have rain coming down in their apartments, so this is nothing,” said CM Rosie Mendez of the Lower East Side.
The package is a comprehensive one, consisting of 12 separate bills informed by grassroots efforts of tenant organizations that have been brewing for much longer. “We’ve been brainstorming for over three years about how to get to the root of the problem,” explained Brandon Kielbasa, Director of Organizing for the Cooper Square Committee.
Kielbasa’s alliance has brought together a number of local renters who share common horror stories– experiences like those of East Village resident Ted Osborne who, after the rally, described to B+B the “horrendous,” years-long construction process that took place at his building. “Within six months, two thirds of our neighbors were either evicted, bought out, or pushed out,” he said. “Our community was completely decimated.”
Of the 50 units in Osborne’s building, only eight original singles and families remain. “Three of them are seniors, who just can’t move,” he said. “It’s unimaginable, they were there all the time while this was happening.”
Smaller tenant groups, like the Mahfar Tenants Coalition, have also teamed up over the years to combat harassment from individual landlords related to renovations. The problems they’ve dealt with range from construction on weekends, late at night, or early in the morning; exposed electrical wires; water and sewage leaks; and the cutting off of essential services such as heat and hot water. Often these issues transcend nuisance.
Seth Wandersman, a tenant who lives in a rent regulated apartment at 210 Rivington Street, a 20-unit building on the Lower East Side, was subjected to relentless harassment by Samy Mahfar, the building’s former owner. Mahfar is notorious for staging various construction projects in his buildings that have made life miserable for tenants. Many live in rent-regulated units, which makes it seem like the annoyances are intentional– a means of clearing these low-rent tenants out to make way for those who will pay much more.
“Some of the biggest problems we’re having are water and heat shut-off, which happened about 40 times during the winter, and lead dust,” Wandersman recalled. People identifying themselves as “tenant relocation services” (Wandersman described this as “a euphemism for people who harass tenants and get them to accept buyouts”) would often bang down his neighbors’ doors. “They target the elderly and people who don’t speak English,” he explained.
A few months back Mahfar sold the building, and lucky for Wandersman and his neighbors, their new landlord isn’t nearly as bad. “But it was such a terrible time that I’m sticking with the tenants alliance,” he explained.
Many landlords, including Mahfar, file inaccurate paperwork, indicating that buildings are either vacant or without rent-regulated tenants. That allows them to receive construction permits for projects that can leave tenants vulnerable to hazardous conditions and exposed to toxins such as lead. As of now, the DOB is not required to verify claims made on construction permit applications. Still, some landlords proceed without permits at all.
Addressing the crowd, CM Rosie Mendez recounted the “worst case” in her district of an owner “destroying three buildings” without construction permits. Whereas such brazen disregard for the law seems to take place far too often, CM Margaret Chin emphasized, “We just want city agencies to do their job, that’s what’s important.”
Incidents of this type of harassment have been documented anecdotally for some time now, and tenant groups and their allies in the City Council have been able to point to the rising number of complaints issued to the Department of Buildings and other city agencies. As areas that were once off-the-radar for people looking for luxury units and upscale amenities have seen an enormous turnaround in terms of desirability (see: Bushwick’s “injection of luxury“), the average price of monthly rent increased dramatically. (Though, as of this month, 2015 year saw a 16 percent drop in the neighborhood due to a housing stock that “quadrupled.”)
The red-hot housing market all over the city has encouraged landlords to renovate buildings so they can take advantage of prospective renters’ willingness to pay high prices. Many developers and landlords have taken advantage of these construction projects (or perhaps initiated them in the first place) to force their rent-stabilized and low-rent tenants out. “For the last five years there’s been a steady uptake [in these incidents of harassment] throughout the Lower East Side and East Village,” Kielbasa explained.
A little more than a year ago these tenant groups and more (Los Sures, Asian Americans for Equality) and the supporting City Council members formed the Stand for Tenant Safety coalition. At the rally this morning, those council members– who represent neighborhoods as disparate as Chinatown, the Lower East Side, East New York, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Upper East Side– emphasized that this type of harassment is a “city-wide problem.” The elected officials went on to describe their individual contributions to the legislative package, the major aim of which is to require the Department of Buildings take a more active role in preventing tenant harassment as a result of construction.
“The DOB, they’re not all bad people,” Corey Johnson, representing Manhattan’s 3rd District, told the crowd.”They need more resources, more inspectors, more people to their job, and we will ensure they get the resources to do this.”
CM Stephen Levin of Williamsburg contributed a proposal for a “real-time enforcement unit” to combat what according to the STS report is usually a “significant lag time” between complaints and DOB response time. Christopher Dobrowolski, a resident of 128 Second Avenue in the East Village, recounted his experience of having essential services, including heat and hot water, cut off at his apartment. In fact, Dobrowolski still hasn’t had his gas service restored.
There was little reason to believe that lengthy shut offs were simply a by-product of construction. Instead, Dobrowolski is sure they were part of harassment tactics that included incidents of leaving loud equipment on for days on end. “They even took me to court, accusing me of running an illegal hotel out of my apartment,” he said with a wry smile. At one point, Dobrowolski recalled hearing one of the owners of the building screaming, “I will get all of these people out.”
Rosie Mendez is calling for a law that would require landlords to post a tenants’ bill of rights in their buildings and specific information about the type of construction happening in a building and how long tenants should expect renovations to go on. After the rally, B+B spoke Seth Wandersman and Mendez, who was frank with her constituents about how change was not going to be immediate. “This legislation will help, but the reality is that people will still suffer,” she admitted. “The good news is”– if the bills pass–“we can hold the DOB accountable. But as long as there’s this hot-bed real estate market, my district is in danger.”
As Wandersman argued, the problem isn’t the lack of support for tenants, it’s a lack of competence at the bureaucratic level. “We have the politicians on our side, we have the laws on our side too.” He and Mendez both recalled an incident in which Wandersman had convened outside of his building along with his neighbors to hold a press conference regarding the conditions at their building. Wandersman claimed his landlord, Mahfar, sent people there to videotape the proceedings. “He was waving the camera in [Seth’s] face, it was an intimidation tactic,” Mendez recalled. “I got pissed off, so I stepped in front and blocked his camera.”
Wandersman explained he felt like Rose Mendez especially had his back. “It’s the city agencies that have been a principal frustration.” He recalled his attempts to get lead levels analyzed during the construction process. “It was very hard to get testing done at my building,” he remembered. Another one of Mahfar’s buildings, also undergoing construction, was found to have what Wandersman said was “3,000 times the federal threshold,” which needless to say made him a bit concerned about lead levels in his own home.
But Mr. Mahfar had installed security guards at the door who would turn away the city inspectors. “It took one to come back with the police to finally get the testing done,” he recalled.
The issue raised by many Council Members and tenants alike is that even when fines are leveled, they are a drop in the bucket to landlords and developers. “They see breaking the law as just a cost of doing business,” Council Member Corey Johnson told the crowd.
It was probably Ben J. Kallos, City Council rep for the Upper East Side, who summed up the rally’s message best. “For far too long landlords have been able to do whatever they want,” he said, explaining that this series of bills, if introduced, might help put a stop to that. “Let’s get buildings out of the hands of bad landlords and into the hands of responsible owners.”